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Sept. 17, 2019, 9:55 a.m. EDT

Is a stop-loss order a good idea?

A stock I own is soaring and I’m afraid to sell — or hold

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By Dan Moisand


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Q.: A stock I own just went over $50,000 in value. I bought it three years ago for $10,000 and I’m thinking its not going to stay above $50,000 but I’m not sure about that. I’ve come close to selling a few times but the stock just kept creeping up. I don’t want to lose and I don’t want to miss out. An adviser in my golf league says I should put a stop-loss order on it to protect the value. What do you think?

— Cam in Kissimmee

A.: Cam, a stop order would be neither a great idea nor a horrible one. The three issues are how well it allows you to participate in the upside, how well it protects the value, and the cost.

I’ll start with cost. There is no fee to put a stop order on a holding. So that’s a plus.

To make the math easier I am assuming you bought 1,000 shares for your $10,000 or $10 per share and with it is now worth $50,000, the current price is therefore $50 share.

A “stop-loss” order is an order to sell once a stock hits a certain price, the “stop”. For our example, we will put the stop in at $45. If the stock price falls to $45, the order is triggered. If the price rises, nothing happens. So, for maintaining upside potential, a stop-loss order fits the bill.

While the term “stop-loss” sounds perfect for value preservation, in practice it is not great.

A stop-loss can fail as a loss limitation tool because hitting the stop price triggers a sale but does not guarantee the price at which the sale occurs. Once the stop price is breached, the order becomes a market order and the stock can sell at an even lower price. This happens often when stocks gap down at the open or due to breaking news intraday. If you wake up tomorrow to find out the company is being sued and it opens at $40, you get $40 not the $45 where the stop was set.

To combat this, you can place a “limit” on the stop-loss by which you will sell for no less than the limit price. The limit, however, does not guarantee a sale. Once the stop price is breached, if the market price is below the limit price, the sell order won’t be executed at all. In the case of a stop-limit at $45, if the stock opens at $40 as I just described, no sale will occur because the limit is higher than the market price.

Regardless of whether the stop order executes or not, the result is often inferior to simply selling now. If the stock sells due to the stop, you will always net less selling at that lower stop price. If no sale occurs because of a limit, no loss limitation was achieved at all.

The situation begs for you to have some conviction about whether you want to retain the stock or take your profits. Which is worse for you: keeping it and having the value drop, or selling it and having it continue to rise? Selling is the most effective loss prevention technique, though it also eliminates any upside.

If you have a question for Dan, please email him with “MarketWatch Q&A” on the subject line .

Dan Moisand’s comments are for informational purposes only and are not a substitute for personalized advice. Consult your adviser about what is best for you. Some questions are edited for brevity .

Dan Moisand is a principal at Moisand Fitzgerald Tamayo, LLC in Melbourne and Orlando, Fla. He is a happily married father of two, a past national President of the Financial Planning Association, has been featured as one of America’s top financial planners by at least 10 financial planning publications.

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