Friday, January 7, 2011

Cut Your Losses!

BY: Bert Whitehead, M.B.A., J.D.

When should you sell an investment if the value drops?

Investors agonize over this and often let themselves be guided by the old adage: “Buy low, sell high.” Based on this logic, they decide they will hold any investment they buy until they can at least break even. Once a client adopts this mantra, it is difficult to convince them to sell their holding at a loss, even when it keeps dropping in price.

There is a strategy of ‘averaging down’ when an investment drops in price. For example, suppose that you buy a mutual fund or stock when it is $20 a share and then it drops to $15 a share. If you had decided it was a good buy at $20 then, logically, you should buy more because it is even a better buy at $15. And if it drops to $10, then buy even more.

This is an aggressive strategy, and requires undaunting confidence in the investment. It can work out, but it often doesn’t. When it doesn’t, the results can be catastrophic. Employees who buy their company stock are particularly prone to make this mistake. I have seen situations where clients have stubbornly held on to Pan Am, GM, Chrysler, Enron, etc. and continued adding to their holdings only to end up losing it all. On the other hand, Ford shareholders have done well using this strategy over the past few years.

A more sound investment approach is to decide that, when you buy an investment, you will reevaluate it if it drops. You evaluate the losing investment with other investments, and then make a “keep or sell” decision. For example, let’s go back to your $20 per share stock. Rather than wait until it drops to $15 you could have decided that, if it drops 10% or 15% (i.e. to $18 or $17), you will reconsider the investment. If there are other investment options with better upside potential, sell your loser and reinvest in something with better prospects. This prevents you from blindly holding on to the shares hoping they will go back to $20.

For many people, selling a loser means they made a mistake, and they are adamant about not losing money on their investments. The blatant truth is that holding on to the stock means you still have a loss, you just haven’t ‘realized’ it yet.

One technique I have used with some success is to explain to clients that by selling the stock, they are ‘harvesting’ their losses for tax purposes. The tax loss will save them tax dollars by offsetting other gains, thereby reducing the capital gains tax. It often gives them an additional $3,000 deduction against other ordinary income, which can save them about $1,000 in taxes at the 33% tax bracket.

The beauty of this is that the client can buy the stock back after 31 days. If bought back sooner, the ‘wash sale rule’ precludes them from taking the tax loss. It’s interesting to note that, no matter how resistant the client was to selling the stock at a loss initially, once they sell it they never buy it back!

Of course we do not recommend ‘market timing.’ When managing clients’ portfolios we take into consideration other factors such as the overall balance of the portfolio, the amount of the single investment relative to the total portfolio, as well as tax issues and clients’ long term goals.

For example, we don’t sell stripped Treasuries in a client’s ladder just because the market value drops. The function of this investment is to assure that the maturity value provides the cash flow necessary for spending goals (usually in retirement), without fail. We know and expect that the market value will fluctuate in the meantime, but the ending value is government guaranteed.

On the other hand we don’t hesitate to sell a mutual fund that has underperformed its peers significantly for two or more quarters in a row. We also take losses in the Cambridge Index Portfolio when we can capture them as short-term, which are the most tax advantaged.

Cutting losses isn’t limited to securities like stocks, bonds, and mutual funds. A huge concern of many clients today is whether they should ‘dump’ their real estate in this depressed market or wait until they can ‘get their money back out.’ This issue is more complex, but here are some guidelines I consider.

If the home is your personal residence, and you like it and can afford the payments, keep the house unless you have to move (e.g. new job, changing neighborhood). If it is a vacant house or vacant property, it is generally better to sell (even at a loss) because the carrying costs of keeping vacant property and running the risk that the value will continue to drop generally makes this type of real estate a bad investment at this time. You may want to review my previous blog of April 29, 2010 titled “What To Do When Your House Is Underwater.”

The issue of when to “cut your losses” is also perplexing when applied to employment and other relationships, but my expertise in these areas is limited (though I have done a lot of research…). The best approach usually is to get a therapist!

In any situation, cutting your losses sooner rather than later is usually the better course of action. Not only does it minimize financial losses, but it also reduces stress. Continually dealing with these kinds of decisions is emotionally toxic.

So make a New Year’s resolution to cut your losses in three areas that have been plaguing you. Get the monkeys off your back, and get on with a rich fulfilling new year!

I appreciate the editorial review contributed by Chip Simon, CFP®, an ACA colleague in Poughkeepsie, NY.