If everything always went exactly as planned, every stock we invest in would go to the moon, and we would all be heading to our nearest dealership for Lambos. However, investing in stocks often feels like trying to launch a rocket high-stakes and unpredictable.
The stock market is constantly fluctuating, making it hard to predict which stocks will skyrocket and which will crash and burn. Even for experienced investors, not every position will be a winner. Knowing this, a common question you may ask yourself is how long you should hold onto a stock and when to sell it.
For hands-on investors, their focus is on picking the right stocks. But, understanding when to hold and sell is just as important as knowing when to buy. While there is no universal answer to this question, there are several strategies that you can use to think through your available options.
- Before investing in the stock market, make sure to research the stocks on your watchlist. We recommend learning a mix of fundamental and technical analysis to find valuable businesses to invest your money in.
- Though there are no universal rules on when to hold and sell, investors generally recommend holding your positions long term to take advantage of compound interest and guarantee success.
- Common reasons for selling stocks include reaching profit targets or stop-losses, riding market sentiment, tax-loss harvesting, etc.
Choosing the Right Stocks
Very few people get rich overnight from investing in the next Amazon or Apple. Most people build wealth by using the buy and hold strategy to hold on to long-term investments for years or decades. What you decide to do will ultimately depend on what you hope to accomplish by investing.
But first, make sure to conduct due diligence to understand what you are investing in and how much risk you can handle. Stocks have different underlying values, and so do mutual funds, index funds, and ETFs. If you decide to invest passively via funds, make sure to look into the differences between popular funds such as VOO, SPY, and VTI.
If you prefer handpicking stocks, learning fundamental and technical analysis will allow you to make wise investment choices. Fundamental analysts focus on evaluating the intrinsic value of a stock using publicly available information. That includes company earnings, financial statements, recent political and economic news, etc. The goal is to glean insights into a company’s growth potential to determine whether it is a valuable investment.
On the other hand, technical analysts focus on identifying patterns and trends. Popular signals used include support and resistance, candlesticks, MACD, moving average crossovers, and VWAP. The goal is to use these indicators to build trading strategies and forecast future price action. Though technical analysis gets commonly used by day traders, you can incorporate it to find good buying opportunities to hold long term.
How Long Should You Hold a Stock?
If you are a fundamental investor, you are likely better off holding stocks long-term. When we look at the historical returns of the S&P 500, the benchmark for stock market performance, we can see that the US markets have consistently returned a profit over ten years since 1955.
Depending on what your goals are, your time horizon can vary greatly. If you want to set aside capital to start a business, that may take years. If you are building wealth for retirement, we could be looking at decades.
With that said, if you have a long time horizon, you should not worry about short-term price fluctuations. As Warren Buffett famously said, “Be fearful when others are greedy, and greedy when others are fearful.” No matter how disciplined we think we are, when we see our investments lose value, we tend to panic and lose control.
When the markets are volatile and uncertain, we should continue holding our stocks if nothing has fundamentally changed about them. If you are still confident about your investments, you should not let fear take over. Instead, wait for the market to recover or buy the dips at the lower stock price and double down on your conviction.
Invest for the Long Haul The Power of Holding
Even if you only invest in high-growth companies, it takes time for your investments to compound and mature. Many companies have grown exponentially despite economic downturns and bear markets. A famous example is Berkshire Hathaway, which has a long history of outperforming the broader stock market.
If you invested just $100 in Berkshire Hathaway in 1964, 50 years later, that $100 would have been worth over $1 million a 10,000% nominal increase! Looking at the chart below, we can see the power of compound interest in action. Of course, this is easier said than done, but choosing the right companies and holding as long as possible will yield incredible results!
During market downturns, it can be easy to feel compelled to sell. But, timing the market is a losing strategy. What happens in the markets today does not necessarily reflect what will happen tomorrow or next month. All stocks experience price fluctuations it is simply inevitable, which is why it is not a good idea to sell your positions based on price alone.
So, when we think about the ideal holding period for a stock, some long-term investors might say hold your stock forever or until you need the money for something important, such as starting a company or retirement income.
Currently, I plan on holding all my long positions in my taxable account until I need the money to buy my first property, which is probably sometime in the next five years. Meanwhile, my retirement accounts will likely remain untouched for the next few decades.
When to Sell Winners
There are many ways to think about selling winners.
Setting Price Targets
Some people set price targets for each stock they invest in and sell their positions when they get hit. Many investors will take their gains when a stock rises 20% to 25% from its initial purchase price. However, other times, investors may wait longer to see if their stocks will break out and reach higher highs.
Following Market Sentiment
During a bull market, it may make more sense to hold your winners for years rather than selling at set price targets. If you think your positions have more room to run, you can keep holding or lock in some gains. If you want to lock in your dollars early, you can always take out your initial investment and let the rest stay in the market.
If we look at Tesla stock back in January 2020, shares were under $100 (post-split price). Now, in October 2021, their valuation has 10x! Let’s say you bought ten shares of Tesla at $88.60 for a total of $886. If you feel that you have made enough profits and want to invest some of your money elsewhere, you can sell the cost of your initial investment, roughly one share, and let the rest keep running. With this strategy, you can take profit while still staying in the game.
Max Profit Potential Reached
If you believe that a stock has reached its maximum profit potential or will no longer make a profit for you, you should sell your position. For example, if you are red on a stock that recently had a severe downtrend and you do not see it rising back to its previous levels, it may be time to get rid of the losing stock.
If a company’s business fundamentals have changed for the worse, such as a significant drop in sales, weak leadership, or several high-profile scandals, you should probably exit your position.
Numerous Factors Matter
While we have listed a few strategies, you should consider these factors simultaneously rather than in isolation. For starters, bull markets tend to last two to four years, while prices typically break out between 12 to 18 months. But, if you are bullish on a specific company, you need to give it more time to grow and mature even during market corrections.
If a company’s stock is outperforming and hits your profit target, growth alone may not be a good reason to sell your position. Other factors such as your confidence in the company’s potential, growth story, market sentiment, and competitive landscape are equally important.
Choosing winners every single time is difficult. Even within my portfolio, I have several losers and am still figuring out when and how to cut my losses. While there are no right answers, there are several scenarios you may encounter that you can use to decide when to dump your losing stock.
Though investors like to joke that “losses are only losses if you sell,” if you cannot afford to shoulder any more losses, you should exit your positions. That could be because you need the money to pay your bills, an unexpected cost came up, or you are using margin recklessly.
Similar to having set price targets, some investors have set stop-losses, price points to exit if the stock falls below a certain level. If their stocks hit their pre-defined stop-loss, they will automatically exit their position.
Investors may also want to leverage tax-loss harvesting to reduce their tax burden while maximizing tax savings. To use this strategy, you sell your investments at a loss and replace them with similar securities. Then, offset your realized capital gains with those losses to offset your taxes.
When you buy and sell a stock within the same year, you incur short-term capital gains, which get taxed as ordinary income. Depending on how high your income is, you could get taxed as much as 37% on your gains.
In comparison, if you hold your stocks for more than a year before selling, you get taxed at the long-term capital gains rate, which is much lower.
The Bottom Line
At the end of the day, how long you should hold your stocks boils down to your investing strategy and the type of investor you are. If you are a passive investor, you can make consistent and stable profits by picking two or three index funds or ETFs to invest in, sitting back, and letting your money grow over time. If you are like me, a hands-on investor who enjoys the excitement of handpicking stocks, then you need to manage your stock portfolio more actively to find companies that have value.
You can always alternate between different strategies to see which one works best for you. Additionally, you can re-enter positions after selling when you think they are valuable again. Right now, I enjoy researching tech and innovation stocks, but maybe five years down the line, I will prefer to invest purely in VOO or VTSAX.
Whether you decide to invest in funds or pick valuable stocks, given a long-term time horizon, you should be able to ride out market crashes and come out positive in the future.