The Mistake is Not Taking the Loss: Cut Your Losses and Move on

One of the keys to managing investment risk is cutting losers before they become large losses. Many people have difficulty selling at a loss because they believe it’s admitting a mistake. The mistake isn’t taking a loss, the mistake is to NOT take the loss. I cut losses short all the time, that’s why I don’t have large ones. I’ve never taken a loss that was a mistake. I predetermine my risk by determining before I even buy something at what point I’ll get out if I am wrong. If I enter at $50, my methods may determine if it falls to $45 that trend I wanted to get in is no longer in place and I should get out. So when I enter a position in any market, I know how I’ll cut my loss short before I even get in. It’s the exit, not the entry, that determines the outcome. I don’t know in advance which will be a winner or loser or how much it will gain or lose. For me, not taking the loss, would be the mistake.

I thought of this when a self-proclaimed old-timer admitted to me he still holds some of the popular stocks he bought the late 90’s. Many of those stocks are no longer in business, but below we revisit the price trend and total return of some of the largest and most popular stocks promoted in the late 90’s. The black line is Cisco Systems (CSC), Blue is AT&T (T), Red is Pfizer (PFE), and green is Microsoft (MSFT). AT&T’s roots stretch back to 1875, with founder Alexander Graham Bell’s invention of the telephone. Pfizer started in 1849 “With $2,500 borrowed from Charles Pfizer’s father, cousins Charles Pfizer and Charles Erhart, young entrepreneurs from Germany, opened Charles Pfizer & Company as a fine-chemicals business”. At one point during the late 90’s “tech bubble” Microsoft and Cisco Systems were valued more than many countries. But the chart below shows if you did buy and held these stocks nearly 20 years later you would have held losses for many years and many of them are just now showing a profit.

tech bubble leaders 2014-11-15_07-04-53

chart courtesy of

The lesson to cut losses short rather than allow them to become large losses came from a book published in 1923.

“Money does not give a trader more comfort, because, rich or poor, he can make mistakes and it is never comfortable to be wrong. And when a millionaire is right his money is merely one of his several servants. Losing money is the least of my troubles. A loss never bothers me after I take it. I forget it overnight. But being wrong – not taking the loss – that is what does the damage to the pocketbook and to the soul.”

-Reminiscences of a Stock Operator (1923)

If you are unfamiliar with the classic, according to Amazon:

Reminiscences of a Stock Operator is a fictionalized account of the life of the securities trader Jesse Livermore. Despite the book’s age, it continues to offer insights into the art of trading and speculation. In Jack Schwagers Market Wizards, Reminiscences was quoted as a major source of stock trading learning material for experienced and new traders by many of the traders who Schwager interviewed. The book tells the story of Livermore’s progression from day trading in the then so-called “New England bucket shops,” to market speculator, market maker, and market manipulator, and finally to Wall Street where he made and lost his fortune several times over. Along the way, Livermore learns many lessons, which he happily shares with the reader.



Markets don’t always react the way investors expect, so I focus on what is actually happening

hedge fund market wizards

I noted the below question and answer between Jack Schwager and Ray Dalio in Jack’s book “Hedge Fund Market Wizards: How Winning Traders Win” (2012). Ray Dalio is the founder of Bridgewater, the largest hedge fund in the world and one of the most successful. I saved it when I read the book as a fine example that markets don’t always react the way people expect, and that is why I focus instead on what is actually happening rather than what could or should happen – but may not. Everything is very transient, coming and going, and it’s funny how some of the same kinds of things happen over and over again. As you read comments below you’ll hear it’s always a similar story, different day. 1982 was the end of a 20 year secular bear market made up of huge swings similar to the past decade and the beginning of the largest bull market on record up to 2000.

Below is Jack Schwager asking a question to Ray Dalio:

Any other early experiences stand out where the market behaved very differently from what you expected?

In 1982, we had worse economic conditions than we do right now. The unemployment rate was over 11 percent. It also seemed clear to me that Latin America was going to default on its debt. Since I knew that the money center banks had large amounts of their capital in Latin American debt, I assumed that a default would be terrible for the stock market. Then boom—in August, Mexico defaulted. The market responded with a big rally. In fact, that was the exact bottom of the stock market and the beginning of an 18-year bull market. That is certainly not what I would have expected to happen. That rally occurred because the Fed eased massively. I learned not to fight the Fed unless I had very good reasons to believe that their moves wouldn’t work. The Fed and other central banks have tremendous power. In both the abandonment of the gold standard in 1971 and in the Mexico default in 1982, I learned that a crisis development that leads to central banks easing and coming to the rescue can swamp the impact of the crisis itself.

Source: Schwager, Jack D. (2012-04-25). Hedge Fund Market Wizards (pp. 54-55). John Wiley and Sons. Kindle Edition.

All of this, everything that is happening and expected to happen, will be reflected in the directional trend and volatility of price. The directional price and range of prices (volatility) will overreact at times and under-react at others, but it will reflect what is actually going on. Because the direction and volatility of price “is” what matters.

The Little Book of Hedge Funds by Anthony Scaramucci

 The Little Book of Hedge Funds by Anthony Scaramucci

I read The Little Book of Hedge Funds over a weekend. It’s an easy read and an excellent choice if you want to get a good overall understanding of hedge funds and the general industry of hedge fund management, selection, or absolute return strategies in general. It doesn’t get into detailed strategies, but instead a high level overview of the pursuit of asymmetric returns. My favorite part of the book was Anthony’s section on selection of hedge fund portfolio managers and how he defines “pedigree”. As he puts it (pp. 149-150):

“To make a long story short, the investment research and due diligence process is focused on determining or not a manager can: Generate attractive absolute and relative returns. Manage risk. Produce uncorrelated returns, with relatively attractive liquidity. Evolve as market conditions evolve. Perhaps most important, we have to understand how they will behave when the shit hits the fan in market debacles like LTCM, September 11th, the summer of 2002, 2008, the European financial crisis, and so on.”

He goes on to say he breaks the manager selection process into two categories. The first is Pedigree (pp. 150-151):


“Pedigree is an all-encompassing term we use to assess whether a manager possesses the right experience and skill to execute a particular strategy in a particular market environment. Typically, an investor should strive to find a manager with many years of real “buy-side experience,” that is, the manager should have actually managed a reasonable amount of capital over a reasonable period of time. The exception to this rule is a new, cutting-edge manager who is implementing strategies that may not have existed three years ago. You would be surprised at how many hedge funds fail the basic “experience” test. For instance, if a manager’s only prior experience is that he was a fixed-income salesman, you could undoubtedly find someone with more relevant experience and skills. For whatever reason, a lot of hedge fund investors tend to be drawn like moths to a flame to big-name sell-side guys who come out and launch a new hedge fund. A general rule of thumb: Avoid these guys like the plague as history has shown that they tend to always fail. After all, managing capital for private investors is completely different from running market making/prop trading outfits. Pedigree also includes a manager’s temperament and qualitative judgment. Is he a loose cannon or thoughtful and deliberative? Has he experienced personal and professional setbacks in his career and how has he responded? Has he treated his investor capital with prudence or has he viewed it as a tool to make a name for himself and get rich quick? Answering these questions takes a lot of work. But, if you want to invest with a hedge fund manager you have to be willing to roll up your sleeves and analyze that manager’s pedigree.”

I thought his explanation of pedigree is outstanding. He points out that pedigree is more about a persons actual experience and skill as evidenced by track record rather than the things we would  see on a resume like college alumni, GPA, and places they’ve worked. It shows Anthony Scaramucci is the real deal. That is especially true because Anthony himself is a Harvard MBA graduate and began his career at Goldman Sachs before staring his own firm. Getting in and out of Harvard’s MBA program and landing a job at Goldman is an accomplishment, but says nothing about ability to manage money. A portfolio managers pedigree is about executing with an edge and is evidenced by a track record.

 The Little Book of Hedge Funds description from Amazon:

The Little Book of Hedge Funds that’s big on explanations even the casual investor can use. An accessible overview of hedge funds, from their historical origin, to their perceived effect on the global economy, to why individual investors should understand how they work, The Little Book of Hedge Funds is essential reading for anyone seeking the tools and information needed to invest in this lucrative yet mysterious world. Authored by wealth management expert Anthony Scaramucci, and providing a comprehensive overview of this shadowy corner of high finance, the book is written in a straightforward and entertaining style. Packed with introspective commentary, highly applicable advice, and engaging anecdotes, this Little Book:

  • Explains why the future of hedge funds lies in their ability to provide greater transparency and access in order to attract investors currently put off because they do not understand how they work
  • Shows that hedge funds have grown in both size and importance in the investment community and why individual investors need to be aware of their activities
  • Demystifies hedge fund myths, by analyzing the infamous 2 and 20 performance fee and addressing claims that there is an increased risk in investing in hedge funds
  • Explores a variety of financial instruments—including leverage, short selling and hedging—that hedge funds use to reduce risk, enhance returns, and minimize correlation with equity and bond markets

Written to provide novice investors, experienced financiers, and financial institutions with the tools and information needed to invest in hedge funds, this book is a must read for anyone with outstanding questions about this key part of the twenty-first century economy.