When to sell a hot stock that's lost its bloom


October 07, 2007|By Gail MarksJarvis | Gail MarksJarvis,Tribune Media Services

I am 24 and have been saving in my 401(k) for about a year, but I find mutual funds boring. So I started paying attention to stocks. I discovered that I was good at spotting those that would do well. For a while, I just made a mental note of stocks I liked, but when I saw them go up I decided to buy my first stock. It was Garmin, which makes navigation devices for cars. I bought it for $70 and I made money immediately. Now I'm wondering how to decide when it's time to sell. Are there some rules of thumb?

- L.J., Washington, D.C.

When it comes to investing money for your future, boring can be beautiful.

In fact, you might be asking your question now because Garmin Ltd. stock has suddenly plunged. That might mean your initial excitement has turned to fear, dread, or confusion.

After soaring to more than $122 a share in late September, shares fell below $100 in just a couple of days. That's a tremendous drop in a short time. And you are probably wondering what it means - whether you should bail now and lock in your $30 gain on the stock, or hope for the magic to return.

Boredom might feel better at this point.

Morningstar Inc. analyst Pat Dorsey suggests taking your gains and getting out now unless you know more about the future of the company than your question suggests.

The stock plunged because of competition - the bane of a hot stock. Nokia, which makes telephones, is acquiring digital mapmaker Navteq Corp. And that means Garmin could have a significant competitor in the navigation device business as it blends navigation with cell phones.

Investors don't like it when they see competition shaping up. A stock might have been a high flier, its products might be good - the opportunities to put navigation devices into more locations can be enormous.

But competition is a spoiler. When competition shows up, it means it's tougher for a company to make a profit - no matter how good the company is.

This is critical for investors to realize - especially those who buy hot stocks without understanding what will drive the stock price higher. Stocks do not go up over time unless a company is as profitable, or more profitable than investors think it will be.

And if an investor simply buys based on the obvious - a good product in a growing market - they are likely to be disappointed, Dorsey said. Every other investor sees the obvious, and that is usually built into the stock price people are paying.

The disappointment may not come at first. Momentum and investor excitement can drive a stock higher for a while. But when a high-flying stock drops 20 percent, that can be a sign that "people have changed their opinion about a stock," Dorsey said.

And that can mean that holding on and wishing for an old stock price to return can be folly.

Too often individual investors don't sell when they should.

They see a $50 stock go to $40, and say they will wait for $50 again. Then the stock goes to $35, and they wait for $40 to return.

Dorsey, who wrote The Five Rules for Successful Stock Investing, suggests studying a stock before buying it. When you do that, you decide upfront what you think will drive profits and by how much.

On that basis, you decide if the price of the stock is too high. If you pay too much, you could have a solid stock, but still encounter a plunge in price.

If profits are lower than expected, that could be a reason to sell. If sales growth slows because a competitor is taking business, that could be a reason.


Gail MarksJarvis writes for Tribune Media Services.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.