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Selection Vs Direction

As I have said many times before in this column it really doesn't make any difference what you buy ? stocks, funds or indexes - it takes smarts to know when to sell. Direction of the general market is more important than selection of any equity.

Everyone from the multimillion dollar analyst on Wall Street to your broker to your barber thought he was a financial genius from 1982 to 2000. Anyone using the stock page from the Wall Street Journal as a target could have picked a winner even if his aim was terrible. Just hit the page anywhere and buy that stock. We were in a secular bull market. History shows these last about 16 to 18 years and , unfortunately, are followed by a secular bear market of about the same period of time.

During the up time the case for "the market always goes up" becomes crystallized in their brain so that any set back is viewed as a "correction" that will be soon be overcome and the market will be making new high prices again. Unless you are willing to limit the amount of loss from those high prices you will give back all your profits and many times even more.

The price of a stock will fluctuate for many reasons usually involving how much profit they are making or anticipate making in the near future. During the past 5 years we have seen tremendous ups and downs in many of the major issues. When a "good" company's stock goes down it doesn't mean it is a "bad" company, but it does mean you will be losing money if you hang on to it. The reason you bought the stock was to make money, not lose it, so you must be willing to sell when it goes against you.

Knowing the general direction of the overall market is the key to selling success. An excellent indicator is the S&P500 Index. In the last 5 years it has gone from 920 up to 1550, down to 800 and the recent price is 975. What a ride! I have written in previous articles how to determine market direction so you will be in cash with your profits in the bank while the market is going down.

Let's compare what some of the "good" stocks have done during that same 5-year period. AT&T from 40 to 100 to 20; Merck from 60 to 95 to 40, now 60; General Electric from 25 to 60 to 22 and, 30; Coca Cola from 88 down to 38, now 45. And there are thousands more that fit this category of losing 50% or more.

These are all "good" companies, but you can lose your shirt, pants and underwear if you stick with the Buy and Hold philosophy. By placing a trailing stop loss order of 7 to 12% as your stock advances the stock itself will tell you when to sell. Whatever stock or fund you select remember to exit when the direction changes.

Al Thomas

Author of "If It Doesn't Go Up, Don't Buy It!"

Never lose money in the stock market again.


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