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Selling Stocks: Mental Stops vs. Stop Losses

Using stops has become a common method for selling stocks. But what’s the better method: mental stops or stop-loss orders? Each strategy has pros and cons.

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It seems like nearly every investor these days uses some form of stops, including us. But recently, the question has come up whether, when you’re selling stocks, it’s better to use mental stops (which are executed by the investor if a stock closes below a certain level) or stop-loss orders with your brokerage firm (which automatically knock you out if a stock touches a certain level during the day)?

Like most things in the stock market, there are good and bad points to each. But the general difference is simply that mental stops tend to do better with a methodology that’s a bit longer term, while in-the-market stop-loss orders are often better for shorter-term, more active strategies that emphasize avoiding much drawdown.

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In my Cabot Growth Investor advisory, where we have an intermediate- to longer-term viewpoint (and are trying to develop some big long-term winners), we prefer mental stops. The best aspect of mental stops is that they help you avoid the occasional shakeout during earnings season or when the market goes haywire, which it inevitably does a few times per year.

We frequently see brief high-volume selling and volatility shake out plenty of investors that just happened to have a stop a percentage or two too high. Companies trading with otherwise healthy fundamentals and technicals announce share offerings that cause share prices to fall overnight, or experience some early-morning market panic, causing the stock to plunge 10% at the open. Investors are frequently kicked out of their positions on these moves and are left watching the stock bounce back.

Of course, mental stops aren’t without their bad side, either. Sometimes a stock drops to your stop during the day … and then just keeps dropping for the rest of the day, leaving you with a bigger loss than you planned on. In those situations, in-the-market stops are more fruitful.

In our view, the real key to using stops when selling stocks is twofold. First and foremost, decide which method (mental or stop-loss orders) you like better, and then apply that to all your stocks—don’t use mental stops for some holdings and stop-loss orders for others.

The second key is to add some common sense. If you use mental stops like us, realize that sometimes (like on a truly horrible earnings reaction), it will be better to take action intraday instead of waiting for the close. Conversely, if you have stop-loss orders in place, it’s probably best to pull them just before a company reports earnings and then use some judgment depending on how a stock reacts.

Stops are an important part of any strategy for selling stocks, but you should put some thought into them. We usually prefer mental stops, but have also added some contingencies for when a stock (or the market) completely implodes, which can allow us to get out a bit earlier (and at higher prices) than otherwise.

For additional stock market advice and to get a full list of our most recent trades, consider a subscription to Cabot Growth Investor.

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Do you prefer mental stops or stop-loss orders when managing your positions?

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*This post has been updated from a previously published version.

A growth stock and market timing expert, Michael Cintolo is Chief Investment Strategist of Cabot Wealth Network and Chief Analyst of Cabot Growth Investor and Cabot Top Ten Trader. Since joining Cabot in 1999, Mike has uncovered exceptional growth stocks and helped to create new tools and rules for buying and selling stocks. Perhaps most notable was his development of the proprietary trend-following market timing system, Cabot Tides, which has helped Cabot place among the top handful of market-timing newsletters numerous times.