Is It Time to Sell?

Think about this for a moment: What if you'd never sold a stock?

Would you have more money now, or less? Looking at my battered portfolio, I set out to answer that question myself this morning, and to back it up with some hard data. I chickened out.

I knew the answer. If I had never sold a single share of stock, I would be ... richer than I am today. How much richer? Much richer. I can't give you a precise figure, because I couldn’t bear to run the numbers.

It gets worse and worse
I bought Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO  ) on a tip back in January 1997. I dumped it a few months later for a quick double. OK, that's not exactly true. In fact, it's a lie. But the point is I could have, and it illustrates my point.

"I sold Yahoo! back in 1997" is one of the most sickening things you'll ever have to admit to another investor. After all, since that first double, Yahoo! has doubled again ... many, many times.

I didn't flip the Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) IPO for a quick double, either. But I know a little how that feels. Pull up a long-term chart for medical-waste handler Stericycle (Nasdaq: SRCL  ) . You'll see a steady ramp upward, connecting $2 to ... the top of the freakin' world. (OK, only to around $60, but you get my point.)

You guessed it. I bought Stericycle for a few bucks in 1997 and sold it the next year after a tidy profit. Now, it's somewhere in the mid-$50s. That's what I call the most painful double of my career.

"So what did you do with the cash?"
I probably bought another stock, but do you think it did as well? Fat chance. I know I didn't have a better stock in mind when I dumped it. I don't recall buying a house or even furniture, either. (You'll see how this is relevant in a moment, believe it or not.)

No, I sold my multibagger to book a nice gain. But what did I really "book"? Zip. You never do, unless you pull your profits straight out of the market, which is not something you should consider now, especially if you're in your prime investing years.

That's right. Tempting as it is, I don't think you should try to time this market. A lot of folks claim to do it -- and a few actually seem to pull it off for a time -- but not me. In fact, you might want to brace yourself, because I'm going to go one giant step further than that.

I barely believe in valuation
At least not when it comes to selling. Sometimes a stock gets so cheap you have to buy it. Here at the Fool, folks got downright giddy when Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) and later Corning (NYSE: GLW  ) plunged to the single digits in early 2003. That worked out.

Now, the value guys are finally poking around the financials. The winners (OK, the survivors) like Bank of America (NYSE: BAC  ) and Citigroup (NYSE: C  ) are consistently among the heavy traders. I've been a buyer myself. We'll see how that works out.

Either way, valuation is well and good if you've got money to put to work, but the math gets dicey when it comes to selling -- especially growth stocks, and especially big winners. The fact is, I've met some great stock pickers in my day, but not many great sellers. Come to think of it, I've never met a great seller.

Promise me you won't get too cute
Let me put it another way. I'm not surprised that my pal Bill Mann and his crew at Motley Fool Hidden Gems are sitting on five recommendations that are still up more than 100% -- even after the recent market pullback.

They work hard, stick to the fundamentals, and understand value. Plus, they're fishing a rich pond. Wall Street isn't snooping around these smaller stocks yet, which creates inefficiencies and pent-up demand.

But just so you don't write me off as a Hidden Gems cheerleader, I'll let you in on a secret: I use the service to lead me to undervalued small caps with big potential. When they tell us to sell, I typically don't listen -- and I probably won't in the future. Especially not if it's a winner. I never sell on valuation.

That's how tragedies happen
"Market-timers" tell you that buy-and-holders like us get wiped out in bad markets. Yet when you pull up long-term charts of "boring" widow and orphan stocks like Procter & Gamble (NYSE: PG  ) , what do you see? A slope skyward. So how on earth does anybody lose money on a stock like that?

Know what else looks like that? The Dow or the S&P 500, for that matter -- a.k.a. the market. Granted, when you zoom in, the ride looks bumpier, but the trend is up. So how do you lose money in the market? Well, you either buy at the top in 2000 -- and only at the top in 2000 -- or you get cute and buy and sell along the way.

Consider this approach instead: Sell your winners when you want to buy a house, furniture, or other major purchase. Sell when you have too much in stocks and you want to buy some bonds, gold bars, or Dickensian village collectibles. Sell when you have too much in any one stock. But sell a stock on valuation alone at your own peril.

You don't have to go it alone
OK. Enough preaching. Like I said, when you join a stock-picking service like Hidden Gems, smarter investors than I will tell you when to sell your winners and lock in your gains. But the choice is always yours.

And when these guys tell you to buy, you'll want to listen -- especially right now when the market is littered with bargains. You just have to know what to buy. If you need ideas, consider this.

Accept a free 30-day trial to Hidden Gems. Within five minutes, you can verify everything I've just told you without risking a cent. If you don't like what you see, don't pay.

But whatever you decide, just promise me you won't get too cute. For a peek at the Hidden Gems scorecard, including the team's top five picks for new money now, and to find out more about your special free trial, click here.

This article was originally published on July 22, 2005. It has been updated.

Fool writer Paul Elliott promises to keep you posted on the progress at Motley Fool Hidden Gems. All picks and results are posted on the Hidden Gems website, which is all yours with a free trial. Paul owns shares of Bank of America, an Income Investor recommendation. Google is a Rule Breakers selection. Apple is a Stock Advisor pick. The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors.


Read/Post Comments (4) | Recommend This Article (5)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On October 26, 2008, at 2:00 PM, exeter17 wrote:

    What if you never sold? What if you bought LA Gear, Enron or Vlassic? Thats right you'd have NOTHING left.

    I think if it doubles, sell it and reinvest 1/2 the proceeds.

  • Report this Comment On October 26, 2008, at 3:11 PM, mowshe wrote:

    I bought GLW @ 4.00 a number of years ago when should i pull the trigger?

  • Report this Comment On October 27, 2008, at 1:46 AM, dividendgrowth wrote:

    Most stocks are scams, they all go to zero.

    So the point is to sell before people realize that they are scams.

    Very few make it or beat the average over the long term, and even fewer people have the skills to find those rare winners.

  • Report this Comment On October 27, 2008, at 12:55 PM, bricks79 wrote:

    Look at the S&P over the last ten years? Investent return: virtually zero!

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