investing

Why I Sell Stocks Slowly

Watching my normal investment style is about as exciting as watching a slow-speed car chase.

For many investors, what to do about Corning (symbol GLW) would probably be an easy call. Since I bought shares just over a year ago, they have sunk 13%, while the overall stock market has gained 21%. Most people would dump a stock that had so drastically lagged as fast as they’d toss a wilted salad. It’s not that easy for me.

For my personal portfolio (the one that no one but me can usually see), my investment strategy is best described as benign neglect. I buy things and I own them. Getting rid of a stock is a bit like giving away a pet—the circumstances would have to be drastic before I’d consider doing so.

But with my “Practical Investing” portfolio, two things make me want to be different. One is that you’re watching. And watching my normal investment style is about as exciting as watching a slow-speed car chase.

The O.J. factor. In Los Angeles, where I live, local TV viewers have been riveted by slow-speed car chases ever since the cops nabbed O.J. Simpson in 1994. During that drama, 95 million Americans talked to their TV sets for 90 minutes as Simpson’s Ford Bronco cruised the 405 freeway at 35 miles an hour, pursued by 20 police cars and about the same number of news helicopters. Juice, they spotted you. Sneaking over the border is not an option.

Hoping to regain that ratings magic, TV outlets have since subjected Angelenos to numerous slow-speed chases, all of which end in the same uneventful way: The suspect stops and is peacefully apprehended. The link to my portfolio? I dare to be dull in my private life, but I feel a bit conspicuous doing it in public.

The second reason I want to be different is, again, because you’re watching. I have your imaginary voices rattling through my head saying, Well? What are you going to do now? It seems inadequate to respond with the truth: Make dinner.

Not that benign neglect is always bad. Consider Whirlpool (WHR). A few months after I recommended the stock in an August 2011 article called Cash-Rich Stocks to Buy Now, I bought it for my personal portfolio (the Practical Investing portfolio hadn’t been created yet). It tanked almost immediately. And then for the better part of a year, it languished below its purchase price. At Whirlpool’s nadir in December 2011, it was down roughly 50%, making it my worst performer.

The cause of Whirlpool’s misery was a lousy earnings report for the second quarter of 2011 and a subsequent announcement that global demand for its appliances was below expectations. The stock fell after the earnings report, and I thought I was getting it at a bargain price as a result. It was the glum guidance that came with the release of third-quarter 2011 results that really sent the shares into a tailspin.

But as you may know from previous columns, my discipline requires that I keep a stock for at least a year. By the time the year had passed, neglect had set in. I had intended to take a close look at Whirlpool, but I never got around to it. Then one day, I was looking at my stocks and thought, What happened there? Whirlpool was suddenly gaining. My loss evaporated. As of this moment, the stock has delivered a total return of 43% in a bit more than a year.

So now I examine the glum guidance Corning issued in October and ask myself, Would I buy the same stock today? Probably not. But the decision to sell is tougher, partly because of the Whirlpool experience and partly because I haven’t found a better stock with which to replace Corning, and I don’t want my money sitting in cash. Two sources of ideas for replacements are stories that ran on Kiplinger.com: The World’s 10 Best Stocks and 6 Great Stocks You’ve Never Heard Of. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, I will do what I do best: procrastinate. And make dinner.

Kathy Kristof is a contributing editor to Kiplinger’s Personal Finance and author of the book Investing 101. You can see her portfolio at kiplinger.com/links/practicalportfolio.

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