Fund managers are good at buying shares – but terrible at selling them

Buying shares can be tricky. But selling them can be even trickier – even the professionals don’t get it right. John Stepek investigates why, and explains how you can become better at selling stocks and shares.

Selling shares on a smartphone
(Image credit: © Getty Images)

Investing is a tricky business.

Finding promising opportunities in a broadly efficient-ish market is not straightforward. Doing the legwork to make sure that you haven’t missed anything is time-consuming. And then working out whether you’re paying a fair price or not – there are a lot of moving parts.

Yep, no doubt about it, the buying process is hard. But you know what’s even harder? Selling.

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Professional fund managers are good at buying, but terrible at selling

Adam M Grossman, writing on the Humble Dollar blog, highlights a very interesting research paper which has just come out of America’s National Bureau of Economic Research.

It’s called Selling Fast and Buying Slow: Heuristics and Trading Performance of Institutional Investors. It’s by Klakow Akepanidtaworn, Rick Di Mascio, Alex Imas and Lawrence Schmidt, and it looks at what is one of the toughest disciplines in investing – managing your selling process.

The researchers looked at a database of buying and selling decisions made by professional fund managers in 783 different portfolios, between 2000 and 2016 (so a decent time period). Active fund managers are often criticised (not least, by us) for generally failing to beat their benchmarks over the long run.

However, what the researchers found is that this is mostly down to one specific part of the trading process.

Turns out that fund managers are actually pretty good at choosing what to buy; the problem is that they lose that edge when it comes to sell. As the paper puts it: “While the investors display clear skill in buying, their selling decisions underperformed substantially.”

And the gap is striking.

The buying decisions significantly beat both the underlying benchmarks, and also a randomised “top up” buying strategy. In other words, when they hit “buy”, the fund managers not only chose the right stocks, but they also got their timing right.

But when it came to selling, they were, frankly, awful: “selling decisions not only fail to beat a no-skill random selling strategy, they consistently underperform it”.

Why is this? From speaking to the managers, the researchers note that: “they appear to focus primarily on finding the next great idea to add to their portfolio and view selling largely as a way to raise cash for purchases.”

In other words, fund managers put a lot more effort into their buying decisions than into their decisions to sell. And this lack of effort ends up being extremely costly in the long run, erasing much of the good work they’ve done prior to that.

How to become better at selling stocks and shares

So what can you take from this as an individual investor?

The first point is that this is one reason why lots of people are better off with passive investing. Active investing takes effort; it’s challenging and the truth is, that’s not for everyone.

You can duck out of these decisions and quite possibly still make more money than your actively-inclined friends and neighbours, simply by putting your money into a small portfolio of exchange-traded funds or tracker funds following the markets you want exposure to.

But let’s say that you want to be an active investor. What else can you learn?

The most obvious point is that selling isn’t harder than buying at a practical level. What makes it harder are the psychological hurdles. Managers simply don’t put as much effort into selling as into buying, and that’s because there’s a very different set of motivations at play.

In fact, the researchers found that when managers put thought into their selling decisions – for example, when they sold out based on earnings reports – they did perfectly well. The real problem is that most of the time when they were selling, they weren’t really thinking about it.

So what does that imply? Firstly – and I think this may well be the most important thing – it’s a good idea to always have a cash cushion in your portfolio. A new idea is always more fun than an old idea; it’s always more exciting. So if you need to sell something to raise money for that new idea, your judgement is already clouded.

The reality is that you want to buy the shiny new thing, so the boring old thing (which may have already made you lots of money and has the potential to make more) does not stand a chance. You’ll engage in as much motivated reasoning as you need to, in order to convince yourself to dump it. That’s how you make mistakes.

Second, approach any selling decision the same way you would any buying decision – do your research. If you’re a serious active investor or stockpicker, then you should have a record of why you bought the share in the first place. Has that rationale changed? If not, then why are you selling now?

Third, as Grossman suggests, consider the asset allocation aspects of your portfolio. Rebalancing rather than selling out entirely can be a good way to take some profits without completely divesting a position that might have further to run.

And given that time is precious, bear in mind that the more money you have in any single position, the more of your time and attention it merits.

I cover more of the challenges of investment psychology in more detail in my book, The Sceptical Investor. I’ll be writing more on this specific study in the next issue of MoneyWeek magazine – if you’re not already a subscriber get your first six issues free here.

John Stepek

John Stepek is a senior reporter at Bloomberg News and a former editor of MoneyWeek magazine. He graduated from Strathclyde University with a degree in psychology in 1996 and has always been fascinated by the gap between the way the market works in theory and the way it works in practice, and by how our deep-rooted instincts work against our best interests as investors.

He started out in journalism by writing articles about the specific business challenges facing family firms. In 2003, he took a job on the finance desk of Teletext, where he spent two years covering the markets and breaking financial news.

His work has been published in Families in Business, Shares magazine, Spear's Magazine, The Sunday Times, and The Spectator among others. He has also appeared as an expert commentator on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, BBC Radio Scotland, Newsnight, Daily Politics and Bloomberg. His first book, on contrarian investing, The Sceptical Investor, was released in March 2019. You can follow John on Twitter at @john_stepek.