False Security: When Stop Loss May Really Mean Guaranteed Loss

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I was reading a story in one of my profession’s trade journals about a financial advisor’s solution to helping retired clients develop income strategies in a volatile market. The advisor has been in business since the early 1970s, but the 2008 financial crisis was his wake-up call to move to “tactical investing.”

I have to confess that I’m a skeptic about anyone’s ability to call market turns, so I was already biased when I started reading the article. But I lost it when the story said his major strategy was using stop-loss orders to avoid big declines.

For those not familiar with a stop-loss order, I’ll explain: it’s an instruction to your broker to put in a sell order if your stock price ever drops below a predetermined price.

To find out more about the dangers of this strategy, let’s eavesdrop on this advisor’s conversation with a customer.


Dr. Charles (Dr. C.): Hello, Joe [the broker]. This is Dr. Charles.

Broker: Dr. Charles, how can I protect your investments today?

Dr. C: I have a large investment in High Tech, Inc., after all, you recommended it to me.

B: A terrific investment recommendation, if I may say so myself.

Dr. C.: Well, yes, but the thing is I’m becoming a bit concerned about it.

B: Why? High Tech is the future.

Dr. C.: Maybe so, but the stock is bouncing around like a yo-yo. It’s finally back up over the high it reached eighteen months ago, but I’m afraid, given its history, it’s going to drop back down again on me.

B: Would you like me to protect you from your stock investments going down?

Dr. C.: Exactly! Would you?

B: Certainly. I’ve been practicing this safe investment methodology since, well—there really isn’t any reason to get into how recently I’ve changed my entire investment philosophy. The point is it looks as if you need a stop-loss order.

Dr. C.: A stop-loss order? Is that what it sounds like it is?

B: The point of a stop loss is to stop your losses and let you keep your gains. You like gains, don’t you?

Dr. C.: Yes. Yes, I do.

B: And what about losses?

Dr. C.: Not so much.

B: So let’s look at the old terminal here. I see that High Tech is trading at about $56½, which is a pretty nice run during the past couple of weeks.

Dr. C.: Right. But before that run, it was priced below what I paid for it.

B: It looks like the last trade was at $56. It’s been trading in a pretty narrow range, between $50 and $60, for the last few days.

Dr. C.: So what can I do to protect myself from the next drop?

B: Tell you what. I’ll put a stop loss in for you at $52. Your basis is $48 so, if worse comes to worst, you’ll lock in a profit of $4/share.

Dr. C.: Thank you, Joe. You’re the best. Now I can sleep at night.

[Nine months later]

Dr. C.: Hello, Joe.

B: Hello, Dr. Charles. How can I protect your investments today?

Dr. C.: Well, you may have noticed the screaming headlines in the newspapers or heard the cable television folks talking about the fact that the bottom dropped out of the tech market.

B: I did notice, yes.

Dr. C.: High Tech was clobbered worse than most. I just wanted to be sure my stop loss got executed.

B: Yes, sir, I see your position now. It did get traded.

Dr. C.: Thank goodness, I just saw it trading at $32! Sure am glad I got out at $48. With my 10,000 shares, I still made a nice profit of $40,000. Thanks, Joe. That’s all I wanted to find out.

B: Uh, hold on a minute. You’re correct that it’s now trading at $32.25. But when the initial sell-off hit, the stock actually dropped all the way down to $27.

Dr. C.: Now, I feel even better that I was able to sell out.

B: Well, that’s the thing. When your stock dropped below $48, that triggered your stop-loss order, all right. Then your shares were sold at market. Unfortunately, the price you sold at was $29.50 not $48.

Dr. C.: What?! How could you have sold me out at $29.5?! I said I wanted $48 minimum.

B: Well, I’m afraid that’s not how a stop-loss order works. I just assumed you knew that when we set it up. All a stop loss does is trigger an open-sell order when and if the stock price drops below the stop-loss price. What happened with High Tech is that with the huge volume of sell orders pouring in, a few trades were done at $48, resulting in your open order to sell “at market.” Unfortunately, there was already a ton of sell orders on the books ahead of you. So by the time your order was executed, the price was $29.50.

[One week later]

Dr. C.: Hello, Harold.

Harold Evensky (HE): Pardon me. Who is this?

Dr. C.: My name is Dr. Charles. I saw you were quoted in the Journal, and you had some skeptical things to say about stop-loss orders. I’m looking for a new financial advisor, and I was hoping you could tell me more about what you think of stop-loss strategies.

HE: On the surface, they look great. They cost nothing, and they preserve all the possibility of further gains, and if you don’t know how they work, you might think that they eliminate the potential of loss beyond the stop-loss order price. Unfortunately, that’s an illusion.

Dr. C.: Tell me more.

HE: The major problem with stop-loss orders is they’re executed mindlessly. There is no guarantee what price you’ll sell at once the stop-loss order is triggered. If the market’s falling rapidly, you may end up selling at a price well below your stop-loss price.

Dr. C.: Actually, I found that out the hard way.

HE: I’m sorry to hear that. But you’re not alone. Here’s a quote from John Gabriel, a Morningstar strategist:

One type of trade that we vehemently avoid more than any other is known as a “stop-loss” order. Consider yourself warned: if you perform an online search for this term, you’re likely to find some misleading definitions. For instance, you may come across an explanation like, “setting a stop-loss order for 10 percent below the price you paid for the security will limit your loss to 10 percent.” Our main problems with this statement are that it is blatantly false, imparts a false sense of security, and can lead to truly disastrous results.


Dr. C.: I wish I’d seen that a month ago.

HE: Gabriel went on to say, “We often quip that a more appropriate name for a stop-loss order would be a guaranteed-loss order”—strong stuff and I couldn’t agree more.

Dr. C.: Do you know of any strategy that does work to limit losses?

HE: You can somewhat mitigate the risk of selling way below your targeted stop-loss price by using what’s called a stop-loss limit order. It’s a little more complicated, but it tells your broker to enter a sell order if the price drops below the stop-loss, but also tells him not to sell if it falls below an even lower limit order. The catch is, if that happens, it means you still own the stock after the price has dropped.

Dr. C.: So, in other words, safety is an illusion.

HE: My bottom line is: If you decide to be a market maven and pick your own stock, then you should decide when to sell, depending on the market environment at the time. Don’t fall for the false security of a mindless automatic trigger. In fact, you may not want to sell at all.

Dr. C.: What do you mean?

HE: When you go to the grocery store and something goes on sale and the price is really cheap, does that mean you go home, rummage around your refrigerator, and offer to sell stuff back to the store at a price that is lower than you bought it?

Dr. C.: Of course, not. I’d probably take advantage of the low price and buy extra.

HE: Then why do people do just the opposite with stocks? When stocks go on sale, the first thing people think about is selling. To my way of thinking, a big drop in price may be a terrific opportunity to buy more, not a reason to sell.

Dr. C.: I never thought of that.

HE: If you want to come in and talk with me, I can set up an appointment. But I’m going to warn you in advance: I don’t have any magic formula for protecting you against the ups and downs of the stock market.

Dr. C.: Believe it or not, at the moment, that’s music to my ears.

This blog is a chapter from Harold Evensky’s “Hello Harold: A Veteran Financial Advisor Shares Stories to Help Make You Be a Better Investor”. Available for purchase on Amazon.

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