September 29, 2008

This Financial Scenario Says There Are No Experts

The go-go days of the 1990s stock market, combined with the ease of online brokerages like eTrade, brought the world of Wall Street home for many people who previously saw it as a world outside their own, with high-priced brokers and a busy exchange floor. Along with the debut of CNBC, and the consumerization of financial news, including and CBS Marketwatch, the potential world of day trading was brought home for millions. While the dotcom crash killed off many people's hopes at retiring rich from behind their computer monitors, most everyone has at least a passing understanding of the stock market, and many see themselves as experts - offering advice to any who will listen, even as we enter what looks like a scenario never seen before in our history, a time that will bring new challenges. Some "tried and true" solutions could work again in this trying time, and others will undoubtedly fail.

Today, after using the same methods I've used in the last seven years following the dotcom crash, I saw my personal portfolio take a hit of almost eight percent in one trading session. I've always typically invested in stocks where I feel I know the companies well, which typically sees me overweighted in the technology sector - Apple included. Of course, Apple took more than its fair share of the dive today, losing almost 20 percent of its value - which didn't help matters.
  • To some, today's dive marks yet another milestone in a long, steep drop downward. The word "depression" is even being thrown around.
  • To others, today's dive is a buying opportunity, giving you a chance to get stocks for cheap, down ten or twenty percent from where they were just a few short weeks ago.
  • To some, buying stocks on the way down constitutes trying to "catch a falling knife", a move fraught with risk.
  • To others, buying falling stocks allows them to "average down".
So now, we get advice from all sides. Buy stocks before Congress passes any version of the bailout bill, which is sure to raise stocks. Sell all your stocks and go to cash, as it's the only "safe" place. Get your cash out of the bank and into gold. You name a theory, and it's out there.

After being bitten by holding stocks long term around the beginning of the decade, I changed my methodology, holding stocks for days, or only weeks, tops. While others worried about taxes for short-term sales, I just tried to make a small portfolio larger. Often, this trading has worked, like it did when I bought AIG at $3.10 on September 16th and sold it for $4.84 on September 22nd, or when I bought Sirius Radio for 74 cents and sold it for 95 cents on those same dates. But, many other times, it hasn't, as the expected bump hasn't taken place. My bull-headedness typically sees me holding onto those losers for way too long, until those losses approach the accumulated gains from winning trades. So, despite my experience, I know I'm no expert. And the current market situation is unprecedented.

The fact that so many factors are coming into play at one time means that no single person has all the data. It's not clear who will be bailed out when, how much it will cost, how the presumed crisis will effect consumer or enterprise spending, and how it will change things in the short term or the long term. But it's not too uncommon for people to give advice without qualifications. You can see it when they say "buying on the way down will be profitable in the long run", or "get ready to buy, buy, buy" or that "smart investors (will) clean house and get ready for this amazing buying opportunity". I've seen every single one of these comments just on FriendFeed alone - which in theory wouldn't be where I'd head for investment advice.

The very tenets of what many of us have used to guide our buying and selling should always be in question. Even the concept of making a profit on every single trade is flawed, as it could make sense to sell one lot of shares at a loss to free up cash to make even more on another stock. And while I look at today's portfolio and see a bunch of red, it's not clear if tomorrow will be the beginning of a turn-around, or more of the same. With twins now, and my wife not working, at least this year, the idea would be to accumulate as much cash as I can, to prepare for tomorrow's expenses, but when I see an entire year's college tuition evaporate in a week, it's got me thinking I need to start making new approaches to guide my behavior in a time when nobody has the rule book. This could be a long learning process for all of us.