No Exit Strategy

Much as I like the MF recommendations, I am struck by a lack of an exit strategy. No one at MF seems to realize that there is nothing wrong with saying “Sorry, we made a mistake with this one. Let’s sell it and move on.” I’m not just talking about the stock, but also the company behind it.

WPRT, of course, is the poster child for this. Even when it has seemed clear for a long time that the company was broken, no one said “It was a great idea but it’s not working. Let’s redeploy the cash.” That doesn’t mean that there’s no chance that WPRT will dig itself out of the hole and be successful sometime in the future, but that there’s an opportunity cost to leaving your money in a stock which keeps going down, as well as whatever paper loss you have.

What brought me to write about this was accidentally looking into a stock called Momenta (MNTA), and discovering that it was a MF RB pick. That is, it was a MF RB pick in 2006!!! It was added at $15.78 and as I write it’s at $11.53. That’s eight years!!! And a loss of over four dollars(!!!) in all that time when the market was mostly going up. And no one said “Hey there are better places for your money” during this huge bull market we’ve had for the last five years.

Again, I’m not saying it won’t do well in the future. I’m talking about eight years!!!. Are people just unwilling to ever say a MF recommendation is a mistake?? It makes no sense.



Saul -

I’ve found this to be a problem for me in the past also. MF is a recommendation machine however they very rarely sell anything. I think both stocks are good examples. I don’t think there is anything wrong with saying “we missed our timing but we’ll continue to track this stock for another entry point…”.

I know I have hung onto at least a few MF deadbeat stocks due to lack of communication from the MF team.

I think the other challenge I have is that some boards are very thinnly monitored…honestly how could you monitor them all if you keep recommending 2 every month without culling the herd in a meaningful way from time to time.

I certainly am not throwing the baby out with the bath water but this is a downside to MF. It puts the pressure of the sell side on us. They take care of the buy timing and us the selling.

I’m hopeful that this smaller community we have on this discussion board will help bridge some of this gap.



Hi Saul,

Excellent points, and I reason I’ve dropped many of TMF services over the 15 years I’ve been on the site.

I only pay for Special Ops now, and find they do a good job of having an exit strategy. If the catalysts don’t play out, or something changes, decisions are made on exiting, and changing allocation. Lately, there is more emphasis on portfolio management. Allocations are changed if there is a better place for the money.

The service is more risky in that the stock may go way down before the catalyst, and the timing is sometimes unknown.


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I hear you, but to be fair, selling is hard to justify when it goes up after too. The thesis for selling can be just as incorrect as for buying. I believe MPD sold part of IPGP, UA and others, only to see it fly to the moon soon after. That’s hard to justify to MF members too.

Not selling is always the safer strategy, since you will not lose money or experience emotional pain.



Not selling is always the safer strategy, since you will not lose money or experience emotional pain.

I think you meant to say something different. Or maybe you haven’t owned a stock, like FMD, that basically went to 0.


The problem is that the stock is still listed as a BUY! Thus some poor guys and gals doubled down when WPRT went from $40 to $30, the added more at $25 and more at $20 and more at $15. Some guidance from MF, even putting a stock on Hold instead of Buy, would have really helped those guys.



I don’t rely on TMF to make sell decisions. I think that being disciplined on the number of positions owned will keep one selling just to buy better stocks and better values.

I have some shares (e.g. AAPL and ISRG) that I’ve kept only because selling would mean giving almost of 1/3 of the position value to capital gains taxes. ISRG has been a roller coaster the past month and in hindsight I could have sold $150 ago just a few weeks ago. Now I’ll need to wait another year (I believe that sales and profits will recover next year).

This morning I’ve been debating selling my AAPL shares before this afternoon’s earnings release. Arg. I probably won’t do it!


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selling is hard to justify when it goes up after too… I believe MPD sold part of IPGP, UA and others, only to see them fly to the moon soon after. That’s hard to justify to MF members too.

Hi Lego,

I can only quote from this great quote from Huddaman that I posted in post #838 :

I don’t really need to be right for the stocks I sell, I just need to right about the stocks I own.

If you think about it, that is exactly correct. It doesn’t matter what the stocks you sold out of are doing. It only matters what the stocks you are in are doing.




The portfolio services will make “sell” recommendations. Sometimes they are in conflict with the recommendations of other services. Jeff Fischer’s analysis of DDD and recommendation to let the position be called away on a covered call and his continued reluctance to take up a new position stands in contrast to other services recommending it between $50 and $90.

I remember EBIX as one unceremoniously dumped by a couple of services in response to short attacks and follow-up analysis that suggested questionable accounting by the company.

MAKO is one that they pretty much went silent about for a 9-month period. David G. had expressed a lot of optimism for a turnaround in MAKO share pricing during a number of Supernova podcasts in 2012. There was a lot of bitterness on the MAKO Board, as people were in deep in the $30s and $40s and the stock was descending into the low teens. I think that it was nearly given up for dead, or a really long horizon, by the time I got interested. I’m glad that they kept it in play.

Remembering all of the positive sentiment showered on the stock during the podcasts, I started buying around $12 (May 2013). I think that it dropped to nearly $8, before starting a slow climb. I started buying more on the way back up between $13-$14 (late July 2013). I held an aggregate position just below $14. I was unaware of the Stryker offer (late September)until the next morning when I opened up my portfolio scoreboard. I was blown away to find my portfolio up 10% from the previous close, because my MAKO position was up 100%.

WPRT is one that I had grown sour on, and when I came across your (Saul) posts questioning that investment vs. PSIX, I was resolved to drop it for a small gain and move on.

AAPL at $600 is one that I felt encouraged to hold, because of MF fervor, even though I was inclined to sell at >$700. I have had to average down to $535 to soothe that sting to a dull ache. The dividend helps, I guess, but I have a lot of capital tied up and going nowhere.

It definitely can be a mixed bag, and I think that you need to define your own thresholds and own them.


Hi Tomagi,

Thanks for your observations.

Tomagi, I got to thinking some more about your MAKO experience. MF holding on to a sinking company because somebody may buy it at a premium isn’t a valid investing strategy. And because you won the lottery doesn’t mean buying lottery tickets is a valid investing strategy either. It doesn’t validate what MF was doing (or not doing).





Investing for a buyout never came up in anyone’s strategy. I expected at least a 2-year horizon. Mako Surgical Q1 and Q2 (2012) were suggesting that they were finally gaining ground. Mako’s turnaround was merely pre-empted by the buyout.

I think that Special Ops is the only service that would advocate an investment on the prospect of a buy-out. Of course, their whole premise is “special situations.”

NFLX is probably the poster child for good-then-bad-then really good times. TMF largely went silent on them between June and November 2012 (before Icahn got involved). The big question is why TMF wasn’t advocating for it when the stock was in the $50s.



And because you won the lottery doesn’t mean buying lottery tickets is a valid investing strategy either. It doesn’t validate what MF was doing (or not doing).

I don’t necessarily disagree. Perhaps, the main problem with that example is the very fact that I got such a lucky jackpot, which kind of distorts the reality.

My point would be: 1) MF talked it up even as it was going down, 2) I happened to assimilate some of that information, 3) I became aware of a potential turnaround in earnings, 4) I bought my first allocation based on the TMF recommendations, 5) I bought (5x) more when I saw additional evidence of a positive direction and a lag in the market’s repsonse, and 6) yes, I got really lucky when Stryker unlocked the value well ahead of the anticipated horizon.

A lot of people (not me) started loading up on MZOR as a result of that example. So, for some, it does appear to be a kind of legitimate strategy.

Hurray! AAPL beats!

Much as I like the MF recommendations, I am struck by a lack of an exit strategy. No one at MF seems to realize that there is nothing wrong with saying “Sorry, we made a mistake with this one. Let’s sell it and move on.” I’m not just talking about the stock, but also the company behind it.

Hi Saul,

Saw your post on the Best Of list (most highly recommended posts in the public boards over the past 24 hours).

If you don’t mind, I’ll share an article I wrote for the March release of Stock Advisor discussing selling. It may not address all your points, but it does explain a fair amount of our philosophy and some of the reasons why we’re reluctant to sell (such as underperformance among those who do it a lot).

For those with access, it’s found here:…


Fool’s Tools: When Should You Sell?

By Jim Mueller
March 21, 2014 - Analysis

You may have noticed that we here at Stock Advisor very rarely recommend selling any of our stocks. In fact, over our past 12 issues, we have recommended selling just 11 in total and three others in part – out of a list of more than 100 individual companies.

You may find that frustrating. Maybe you’ve got a losing position that’s painful to see every time you check your portfolio. Maybe you need to raise some cash to pay for the things that inspired you to invest in the first place. Or maybe you’ve just given up on a company.

A long-term mind-set sometimes means holding on to a stock even when your gut is telling you to sell. But even Foolish investors know nothing is forever. So how do you know when the time has truly come to sell?

Try Not To

First off, we try to avoid it. Here’s how David put it in a recent board post: “The more I invest … the more I realize that selling is almost always silly – for the types of world-beating businesses I’m fascinated by and recommend – unless the company I’m selling has truly broken down.” (Emphasis in the original.) We’re trying to find strong businesses to own, not slips of paper to trade.

In fact, trading is hazardous to your wealth. In 2000, Brad Barber and Terrance Odean published a paper by that name which investigated the activity and results for 78,000 accounts over a six-year time period. During the years they studied (1991-1996), the market averaged annual gains of 17.9%. Those who traded the most had net average returns of just 11.4%, while those who traded the least achieved net average returns of 18.5% per year. Quite a difference!

The authors attributed the large difference to overconfidence on the part of the traders. The new position would do better than the old one, seemed to be the thinking. Unfortunately, that didn’t work out so well.

Warren Buffett has commented that he would have more money today if he had never sold a position. And Tom Gayner, the very successful chief investment officer at Markel (NYSE: MKL), has said that investors make more money from their butts than their brains (as in, sit still and don’t overthink things).

We approach the situation by assuming that we don’t know whether we’re right to sell. After all, the sell decision requires us to be right twice (once on when to sell, once again on where to reinvest the money), rather than just once (leaving the position alone). Plus, we don’t know what the future holds. A quality company that’s struggling could turn it around. It happens – just ask investors who held Netflix (Nasdaq: NFLX) through the bruising fall from $305 to $62 (an 80% drop) in 2011. Shares are now above $420.

Look Forward

David writes, “For me, a lot of thinking about selling a stock is contextual; for a given stock, you have to think of it in terms of whether it’s fulfilling your original or revised expectations of it, and most of all you need to look at the business, not the stock, and at the future, not the past. We’re constantly doing this.”

Our favorite question to ask whenever we look at any of our positions is, “Can this company’s stock outperform the market over the next three to five years?” When Tom recommended selling LabCorp (NYSE: LH) this month, and when David did the same with Southwest Airlines (NYSE: LUV) last October, the answer to that question from all the analysts was no. We answered by looking at the company and its prospects at that moment, not how its stock had fared. From what we understood of their prospects and opportunities, we no longer believed they would outperform.

One of These Things Is Not Like the Others

One advantage of not selling – and holding for long periods – is that big winners will far and away outstrip big losers.

Looking at our entire scorecard (as of Thursday’s market close), Tom and David have made 288 recommendations over 12 years spanning 208 different companies. The worst-performing 10% (29 recommendations) averaged a 63% loss, ranging from Dell’s 44.4% loss for Team David all the way down to Pacific Sunwear’s (Nasdaq: PSUN) 95.6% loss for Team Tom. (If you’re curious, David and Tom also split Nos. 2 and 28 — Satyam Computer Services’ 94% loss and Resources Connection’s (Nasdaq: RECN) 44.7%, respectively.)

In contrast, the 29th-best performing recommendation is Illumina (Nasdaq: ILMN) from David, with a 274.1% gain. If you’d invested $1,000 in this and each of the four losers above, the $2,741 gained from just this one winner would make up all but $46 of your losses.

In other words, avoiding the temptation to sell can, in itself, protect you from big losses. And if you invest in more winners than losers, as Stock Advisor has (with 213 out of 288 total recommendations in the green), then holding losers ends up being not nearly as painful.

Good Reasons

Still, after all this, we do sell on occasion. But it’s always for a concrete reason. Here’s why we would part ways with a stock:

  1. The thesis has collapsed. The investment hasn’t worked out as expected, and it’s not likely to based on what is known at the time. This usually means selling after a significant drop because it takes time for the company to show that it’s truly falling short of what you expected. We make a good-faith effort to wait until we’re convinced this is the case.

  2. The thesis has run its course. You invested for a very specific reason – the company was in the midst of a turnaround, for instance – and that reason has now been met. You got what you came for, so move on. It’s very easy to convince yourself after a big win to stay in and change the thesis; I’d advise you not to do that. Sell, wait a quarter, and then revisit the company as a brand-new investment. Develop a brand-new thesis. The time interval will hopefully dampen your euphoria, allowing a more clinical examination of the company’s situation going forward.

  3. Your investment thesis is fundamentally wrong. During your research, you overlooked something major or didn’t take something into account that you should have. Adding this new information changes the situation enough that you would not have invested in the first place if you had included it. Don’t be shy about owning up to the mistake, and don’t compound the error by refusing to correct it.

  4. There’s a sudden resignation at the C-level. Did they quit or were they fired? (“Family reasons” is almost certainly a euphemism for one or the other.) A power struggle at the top will preoccupy those who are left, and having to find a replacement is also distracting. I much prefer smooth transitions.

  5. The SEC opens an official investigation. By the time this is announced and you hear about it, it will be too late to avoid a lot of pain. Get out anyway, because it often gets worse.

  6. The company has to restate its books more than once within a four-year time span. Investors absolutely rely upon the accuracy and transparency of the financial statements. If the company has to correct its statements, management could be playing games with the financials. You have better opportunities.

  7. The stock has reached your estimate of fair value, and outsized returns are less likely. This one is very tricky to get consistently right. Fair value is a fuzzy target at best, and it’s 100% dependent on the assumptions used to estimate it, any of which could be wrong. Further, this type of investing tends to miss the huge growth stories — e.g., (Nasdaq: AMZN) — because those companies almost always look overvalued and may never be purchased in the first place.

  8. You have a better opportunity elsewhere. This is probably the most nebulous and least reliable reason, as we are all too good at convincing ourselves to do something, coming up with reasons to justify it, and ignoring reasons we shouldn’t. So it’s there – but don’t forget what Barber and Odean had to say about the perils of trading.

  9. You need to rebalance. Depending on your investment style, philosophy, and comfort level, you might trim from a big winner if it becomes so big your overall returns rise and fall with it. What that plateau may be is up to you (many use 25%), but the idea is to reduce your risk and get back to a level of diversification that lets you sleep at night.

Time to Sell!

Having laid out our philosophy, I am fully aware that most of us invest for a reason, be it to send a child or grandchild through college, or to go on a once-in-a-lifetime trip, or to support retirement. Therefore, one needs to cash out at some point in order to use the money for its ultimate purpose. In Stock Advisor, we do not give guidance on how you should do that or what positions to sell (other than our official sell recommendations), though a few possibilities do spring to mind.

One would be to trim a bit from all positions. Let the remainder keep growing. Or you might work your way up from the bottom, selling those that have performed the worst while letting your winners continue running. Or you might have one or more positions that are significantly larger than the rest, so trimming those would free up cash and lower your risk by rebalancing the portfolio a bit. All of these strategies make sense, and you could very well use a combination successfully.

When you decide to sell a stock, do two things: Write down why you sold, and start tracking what happens over the next three years. If you sold for valuation reasons or to take advantage of a new opportunity, this will give you black-and-white feedback on whether you were right or not. And if you sold because of concerns about your thesis, you’ll want to monitor that, too. Tracking your decisions will help you improve the process of making them, so you can make better ones in the future.

Whatever you do, avoid second-guessing yourself for selling B instead of A. That’s hindsight bias, which will only interfere with your enjoyment of your efforts.


The big question is why TMF wasn’t advocating for it when the stock was in the $50s.

TMF SuperNova was a huge advocate of NFLX in the 50’s. Only reason I’m in them today.

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You’re right about SN, HopJokey. I bought in mid-$60s based on the SN rec, and, to be fair, it didn’t really stay long in the $50s.

It’s interesting to revisit that period and read the cautious tone that comes through in the October updates. I do think that it was warranted at the time. It’s also interesting that no further investments were made after August.

What I remember from early 2013 was some people complaining on the boards that TMF had largely gone silent on NFLX before things started heating up again. Not silent on SN, but appropriately cautious, and, perhaps, delayed optimism elsewhere. That kind of stuck in my mind.

Another service was lining up for continued downside with the recommendation in August for a bear put ladder.

Like they say, “It’s motley.”

Sorry. To be clear: I was referring to the 2nd half of 2012 (August, October).

This morning I’ve been debating selling my AAPL shares before this afternoon’s earnings release. Arg. I probably won’t do it!


And what a smart fellow you turned out to be!

Nice announcement, si?

Anyone paying any attention to this stock below? I had just sold a bunch of puts on VRX, earning very good premiums and the stock then announced their purchase of the botox maker…I was hoping ENDO would do something similar.…

This morning I’ve been debating selling my AAPL shares before this afternoon’s earnings release. Arg. I probably won’t do it!


And what a smart fellow you turned out to be!

Nice announcement, si?


Geez, I saw your sentence quoted above, sent in my hooray for a good decision by you only to see a few posts later, you went ahead and sold. So I apologize for…something, now that I know you did sell.

I didn’t want you to think I was being sarcastic in my praise. It was meant to be the opposite.
PS I notice even in my own dealings, that procrastination for me, turns out to be a strength when trading, whether buying or selling. When buying, should procrastination cause you to miss an opportunity, there’s always another one around the corner, whereas, on the selling side, rarely have I sold too late, it’s usually too early. Just philosophizing…

Yeah, waiting a day in this case would have been better. Despite the missed opportunity to make 8% on AAPL, I believe that GILD will do better over the next year. So I can’t worry about my sell and need to just know that I made a good longer term decision.


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