MIAMI (MarketWatch) — I believe in stop loss orders to protect stock positions or to lock in gains. When the stop loss is triggered, your stock is automatically sold at the market at the best available price.
The best available price? Unfortunately, that can be a misnomer.
In a normal market (if there is such a thing), the stop loss can work as intended. You buy a stock at $50, and enter a stop loss order to sell at $47.50, which limits your loss to 5%.
In reality, in a fast market when the stock gaps down (during flash crashes, breaking news, or fake tweets), your stop loss is triggered. The bad news is that it will be triggered at the next available market price, which could be many points lower.
In other words, your stock could be automatically sold at the lowest price, and instead of locking in a 5% loss, you could lose much more.
Another problem with a stop loss order is that when you enter it into the computer, the order is transparent. A game that some market-makers played (these days, it will be computer algorithms) is “run the stops,” when the stock is forced low enough to trigger a large cluster of stop loss orders (usually at round numbers or well-known support and resistance levels). After the stock is sold at a popular stop loss price, the stock reverses direction and rallies.
The biggest problem with stop losses is that you have given up control of your sell order to the computer. During volatile markets, that can cost you money. But there is an alternative.
I still believe in stop losses, but not the automatic kind. Rather than using automatic stop losses, I set up price alerts for the securities I bought (and for those I plan to buy). For example, if I buy XYZ stock at $20 per share, I might set a price alert at $19 (5% loss), and also at $25 (25% gain).
If the $19 alert is triggered, I am notified by email and text message. Next, I’ll turn to my mobile device and decide what action to take. More than likely, I’ll sell depending on market conditions. And if the $25 price alert is triggered, I might sell for a profit or set new price alerts.
The main point is that I am in control of my sell orders. Technology has made price alerts more practicable than in the old days. First, because of mobile devices, you are notified instantly if the target price is triggered. Second, you can take immediate action. Before the Internet, you had to run to a phone and call your brokerage firm. (During the 1987 market crash, phone lines jammed because of the huge influx of orders. By the time brokers entered their clients’ sell orders, stock prices were already at rock bottom.)
Note: Stop loss orders still make sense if you are unable to access your account immediately, for example, if you are on vacation. In addition, if you are not disciplined and ignore price alerts (hoping your stock will come back one day), automatic stop losses might be a better alternative.
Now, let’s take a look how the overall market is doing, and which are the leading stocks within the strongest sectors. Amy Smith, author of “How to Make Money in Stocks Success Stories” and a market expert at Investor’s Business Daily, gave her view of the overall market.
“We’ve been in an uptrend since November and have had a nice move along the way with the indexes moving into new high ground. Although there were a few distribution days (selling), and the market corrected a little bit, we went back into an uptrend. Savvy investors are keeping a close eye on the volume going into the indexes.”
Smith says to watch for heavier volume as the market moves higher. “If volume continues to increase, it indicates institutions are buying shares. The key is whether the major indexes can hold onto their new highs.”
Using the CAN SLIM® investing method, Smith is also looking at how the leading stocks are doing. Are they holding or starting to correct? So far, they are holding on, but that could quickly change. “If you see indexes and leading stocks pulling back on heavier volume, that is an indication that professional buyers are lightening their positions,” Smith says. “That is the time you don’t want to be in the market.”
One group to watch: Biomedical stocks. These companies produce drugs and services to people that need health care. “We have an aging population and people need these products,” Smith says, “but if this group begins to weaken, that could also spell trouble for the overall market unless another sector takes its place.”
According to Smith, stocks in that sector that have had huge earnings increases so far (ranging from 27% to 63%) include Celgene, The Medicines Company , Valeant Pharmaceuticals International, Cigna, and Biogen Idec. There are also several ETFs that focus on biomedical stocks. As always, just because this industry has done well in the past is no guarantee it will do well in the future.
My opinion: Many retail investors are still suspicious of this market. Why? Because they think the market is logical. Well, if you want logic, play chess. Otherwise, until there is evidence of a correction or bear market (indicators turning down, more than two strong down days in a row, strong opening but weak close, and leading stocks unable to advance), this bull market will continue. That said, never let down your guard — this market could turn at any time.
This article originally appeared on MarketWatch.com. Copyright © 2011- 2020 MarketWatch, Inc. All rights reserved.