Selecting Stocks with a Score

My husband really likes selecting stocks with a score, the Piotroski score in particular.  Briefly, Professor Piotroski created a set of nine financial ratios that contribute to the score. If a company meets a certain criterion and has favorable results on 8 or 9 of the ratios, his analysis indicates that the company’s stock is likely to do well. My husband is primarily a value investor. The appeal of the Piotroski score to my husband is that it focuses on value stocks and, while it relies heavily on statistical analysis, it isn’t a black box.

In this post, I’ll identify the group of stocks to which the Piotroski score applies. I’ll then briefly explain the financial ratios that determine the score. I’ll close with a specific example of a stock I bought solely using the Piotroski score and provide some general guidance on applying the results of the score.

Book-to-Market Ratio

What is It?

The book-to-market (BM) ratio is a financial ratio. The numerator is the book value of the company. This value is shown on the balance sheet in the company’s financial statements and is usually reported as “Shareholders’ Equity.”

The denominator of the ratio is the total market value of the company on the evaluation date as the financial statements. The total market value is the stock price multiplied by the number of shares outstanding and is also called the market capitalization.

In mathematical terms,

Piotroski waits for the financial statements to be published for a particular year end to get the book value. He then looks up the market capitalization on the evaluation date of the financial statements for use in the ratio.

Piotroski’s Criterion

In his paper, Piotroski identifies value stocks as companies that have BM Ratios in the highest quintile (highest 20%) of traded stocks. These stocks have high book values relative to their market capitalization. Looked at from the other perspective, these stocks have low market capitalizations (and therefore low stock prices) relative to their book value.

Recall that the book value is the company’s assets minus its liabilities. In theory, if the company were liquidated on the evaluation date of the financials, shareholders would get their portion of the Shareholders’ Equity, based on the proportion of shares owned. Therefore, a BM ratio of 1.00 means that the market capitalization of the stock is equal to the Shareholders’ Equity.

By comparison, the cut-off for the highest quintile of BM ratios[1] across all stocks reported in the ValueLine Analyzer Plus on May 29, 2020 is 1.47. The book values per share of these companies are almost 50% higher than their stock prices!   You can see why Piotroski might consider these stocks to be potentially good values at their current prices.

Why Might It Be High?

There are at least two reasons that the BM ratio might be high.

First, the market may perceive that either assets are overvalued or liabilities are undervalued. Both of these situations would cause the reported book value to be higher than its true amount.

For example, some companies have not fully funded their pension plans. That means that the estimated present value of the future pension benefits is more than the liability on the balance sheet. Companies disclose these differences in the Notes to Financial Statements. If the liability for pension benefits is understated, it will cause the company’s book value to be overstated.

Second, financial theory tells us that the market value of a company’s stock is equal to its book value plus the present value of future profits. If the market perceives that the company is unlikely to make money in the future, the market capitalization will be less than the book value.

The Piotroski score focuses on companies in the second category. That is, it attempts to identify companies that will be profitable in the future from among all of the companies that the market thinks will have negative future profits.

Piotroski Score

The Piotroski score is calculated as the sum of a set of 9 values of 1 or 0. There are 9 criteria in the calculation, in addition to the BM ratio being in the highest quintile. The process assigns a 1 if a company’s financial statement values meet each criterion and a 0 if it does not. As such, companies that meet 8 or 9 of the criteria are considered more likely to have above market average performance.

The 9 criteria are listed below:

  1. Return on assets (ROA) = Net income / Total assets at beginning of year > 0
  2. ROA this year > ROA last year
  3. Cash flow from operations > 0
  4. Cash flow from operations > net income
  5. Long-term debt / Total assets this year < Long-term debt / Total assets last year
  6. Current ratio this year > current ratio last year
  7. Shares outstanding this year <= shares outstanding last year
  8. Gross margin this year > gross margin last year
  9. Total sales / Total assets this year > Total sales / Total assets last year

Piotroski performed his analysis using data from companies’ financial statements from 1976 to 1996. The average of the one-year returns for the companies with scores of 8 or 9 was 7.5 percentage points higher than the average for all companies with high BM ratios and 13.5 percentage points higher than the average for the market as a whole.

How to Calculate It

If you are familiar with reading financial statements, you can calculate the Piotroski score yourself using the formulas above. Or, you could extract the key ratios from a source, such as ValueLine, Tiingo or Bloomberg, all three of which require subscriptions. I use the latter approach as I have a subscription to ValueLine that I use for a variety of purposes.

An easier option is to use a Piotroski calculator or screener.   I’ve never used any of these tools, but I used Google to find a couple free options you might try.

  • Old School Value – This Excel spreadsheet will calculate and show you how a company does on each of the 9 tests and the total score.
  • ChartMill – This screener lets you identify stocks based on their Piotroski score. As such, it helps you find stocks with scores of 8 or 9, but does not show you the details of the underlying calculation.

I suggest being careful to check the documentation of any of these tools to make sure that the descriptions of the 9 tests are the same as I’ve included above (which I took directly from Piotroski’s paper). In poking around on-line, I found more than one site that did not correctly specify the nine tests.

My Experience Selecting Stocks with a Score

Although I’ve looked at stocks using the Piotroski score several times, I’ve made only one purchase using it as my primary buying criterion. I purchased FUJIFILMS (FUJIY) in March 2012. At the time, FUJIY had a BM Ratio of about 1.40, as compared to a market average BM ratio of about 0.5. It had a Piotroski score of 8, having failed the test for an increase in gross margin.

For many, many years, FUJIY’s biggest product was film for cameras. With the advent of the digital camera, its market shrank rapidly. In the year before I purchased the stock, its price decreased by 32%. As I was looking at the company, it was transitioning its business from camera film to other types of related products, including medical imaging and, more recently, office products with its purchase of Xerox. With a good story and a high Piotroski score, I decided to buy the stock.

It turns out I was a little early in buying the stock. In the 12 months after I bought the stock, it decreased by 19% while the S&P 500 increased by 13%. However, if I had bought it a year later, my total return would have been much better over both the short and long term, as shown in the table below.

Total Return starting in March 2013
1 Year2 YearsUntil June 2020
FUJIFILMS+51%+84%+171%
S&P 500+22%+36%+110%

 

So, even though my returns were lower than the market average because I bought the stock too early in the company’s turnaround, I correctly decided to keep it after its first year of poor performance. That is, if I had sold the stock one year after I purchased it and bought an S&P 500 index fund, I would have been worse off.

Caution

As with any investing strategy, it is important that you understand the assumptions underlying the Piotroski score. I also recommend that you understand the story behind the company you are considering for investment, as described in my post on buying stocks based on their financial fundamentals. There are companies that may have a Piotroski score of 8 or 9 that don’t have a good turn-around story, such as the one I described for FUJIY. In those cases, you may not want to rely solely on the Piotroski score.

 

[1] Calculated in this case as Book Value Per Share at most recent fiscal year end divided by Price on May 29, 2020, so not exactly equal to the ratio as calculated by Piotroski.

Picking Stocks Using Pictures

Picking Stocks using Pictures

Technical analysts select companies for their portfolio based on patterns in stock prices.  That is, it allows them to enhance their process of picking stocks by using pictures. This approach is very different from some of the others I’ve discussed, as buy and sell decisions are based in large part on these patterns and less on the financial fundamentals of the company. Every technical analyst has a favorite set of graphs he or she likes to review and their own thresholds that determine when to buy or sell a particular stock.

I’ve done just a little trading based on technical analysis, so asked Rick Lage, a family friend who has much more experience with this approach, to help me out. In this post, I will provide some background on Rick and provide explanations of the graphs he uses. I’ll also provide some insights on who I think is best suited for this type of trading.

Rick’s Story

Rick’s Background

“I was first introduced to the stock market in a Junior High School math class. I made my first trade with a stockbroker about 6 years after graduating from High School.

My interest in the stock market never faded. I was always focused on this platform to make money. Unfortunately losing money was a regular occurrence for many years in the beginning, with not many gains to be proud of.

My interest peaked in 1999 when I attended my first stock trading event in Las Vegas, known as the TradersExpo[1]. TradersExpo provides a wealth of information available for the beginner to the pro, including hardware, trading software, classroom instruction and more.

I personally have never been a day trader. Swing trading is more my definition. I do touch base with my stock watch list daily. It’s always managed and checking my technical indicators is a must.”

Rick’s Goals

“I stock trade for the challenge; not so much for the fun or success. If there is success the fun will follow. There will be losses. No doubt. But you learn how to manage those losses. You have no choice. Technical trading is my science.”

Rick’s Advice to New Traders

Rick says, “I have tried hard to never complicate the trade. There are many technical indicators, so don’t get overwhelmed. I pick stocks that have the momentum. Pick your favorite few indicators and go with those.”

Rick’s Tools

Rick’s favorite indicators are

  • Simple Moving Averages using 9 and 180 days (SMA 9 and SMA 180)
  • Price and Volume Charts
  • Relative Strength Index (RSI)
  • Moving Average Convergence Divergence (MACD)
  • Heikin-Ashi bar chart

I will provide brief introductions to each of these indicators, illustrating each with two stocks – Apple and Shopify. A graph of Apple’s stock prices from January 1, 2018 through mid-May 2020 is shown below. It had some ups and downs in price in 2018 and 2019, followed by a significant decrease and recovery so far in 2020.

Shopify had a steadier increase in 2018 and 2019, but much more volatility so far in 2020, as illustrated in the graph below.

Simple Moving Averages (SMA 180 and 9)

In this context, a simple moving average (SMA) is the average of the closing prices for the past n days, where n is specified by the person making the chart. In Rick’s case, he looks at the 180-day simple moving average and the 9-day simple moving average. For the former, he takes the average of the closing prices for the previous 180 days; for the latter, the average of the closing prices for the previous 9 days.

SMA Charts

Technical analysts add their favorite SMA lines to the chart of the stock’s price. For illustration, I’ve added the SMA 180 and SMA 9 lines to the Shopify and Apple stock price charts below.

SMA Indicators

Technical analysts then look at the crossing points on the chart to provide buy and sell indications. For example, a technical analyst might look at when the closing price line (black in these charts) goes up through the SMA 180 line (blue in these charts) and call it a buy signal or an indication of a time to buy a stock. You can see an example of a buy signal, using this method, for Shopify around May 1, 2019, as indicated by the green circle.  The buy signals for Apple are much more frequent using this criterion, two of which are indicated with green circles.

Similarly, a technical analyst might look at when the SMA 9 line (yellow/orange in these charts) goes down through the SMA 180 line and call it a sell signal. Using this criterion, there was a clear sell signal for Apple in early November 2018, as indicated by the red circle.

Every technical analyst has his or her favorite time periods for SMA lines. In addition, each technical analyst selects his or her own criteria for buy and sell signals based on those SMA lines. The shorter the time period associated with the SMA, the more often buy and sell transactions will be indicated. When I use SMA graphs to inform my buy and sell decisions, I use fairly long time periods as I am a long-term investor. By comparison, some people trade in and out of stocks several times a day, so use very short time periods, such as minutes or hours.

Price and Volume

A price and volume chart shows plots of both the price of a stock and its volume on a daily basis, color-coded to indicate whether the stock price went up or down each day. The graph below is a price and volume chart for Shopify.

The upper chart has rectangles (called boxes), sometimes with lines sticking out of them (called whiskers). The combination of the boxes and whiskers is often called a candle. There is one candle for each trading day.

Price & Volume Indicators

A red box indicates that the price was lower at the end of the day than at the end of the previous day; a green box, higher. Green boxes can be interpreted as follows:

  • The bottom of the box is the opening price.
  • The top of the box is the closing price.
  • The bottom of any whisker sticking down from the box is the lowest price on that day. If there is no downward whisker, the lowest daily price and the opening price were the same.
  • The top of any whisker sticking up from the box is the highest price on that day. If there is no upward whisker, the highest daily price and the closing price were the same.

Red boxes can be similarly interpreted, but the opening price is the top of the box and the closing price is the bottom of the box.

The lower section of the chart shows the number of shares traded each day. If the bar is green, the stock price went up that day, while red corresponds to down.

Technical analysts use these charts to identify trends. A really tall green bar in the lower section green is an indication that a lot of people think the stock will go up so are buying. Many technical analysts consider this a buy signal. Similarly, a really tall red bar is considered by some to be a sell signal. My sense is that you need to be very quick to respond using this type of strategy, as you don’t want to sell a stock after everyone has already sold it and the price has dropped or buy it after the price has increased.

Relative Strength Index (RSI)

The Relative Strength Index (RSI) is intended to measure whether a company’s stock is in an over-bought or over-sold position. If it is over-sold, it is a buy signal; if over-bought, a sell signal. The RSI is one of a broad class of measures called oscillators, all of which are intended to evaluate whether the market is over-bought or over-sold.

The RSI is determined based on a moving average of recent gains and the moving average of recent losses. The value of the RSI is scaled so it always falls between 0 and 100.

The RSI was developed by J. Welles Wilder. He considers the market over-bought when RSI is greater than 70 and oversold when it is below 30. There are many other ways in which the RSI chart can be used to identify trends and inform trading decisions that are outside the scope of this post.

The chart below shows the RSI for Apple (blue) and Shopify (orange).

The red horizontal line corresponds to RSI equal 70, Wilder’s over-bought signal. The green line is Wilder’s over-sold signal at RSI equals 30.

In this chart, there are several times when both stocks were over-bought. That is, the RSI for both stocks goes above the red line. Apple was considered slightly over-sold a few times, when the blue line crossed below the green line. By comparison, Shopify’s RSI came close to indicating that it was over-sold a few times, but never went below the green line.

Moving Average Convergence Divergence

The Moving Average Convergence Divergence indicator (MACD) is similar to the Simple Moving Average indicator discussed above. However, it uses an exponentially weighted moving average (EMA) instead of a simple moving average. A simple moving average gives the same weight to each observation. An exponentially weighted moving average gives more weight to more recent observations. MACD can use any period – minutes, hours, days, etc. For this illustration, I will set the period equal to a day. If you are trading more often, you’ll want to replace “day” in the explanation below with “hour” or “minute.”

The MACD was defined by its designer as the 12-day moving average (EMA 12) minus the 26-day moving average (EMA 26). MACD is compared to its own 9-day moving average to determine buy and sell signals. As with the simple moving average, the MACD crossing its 9-day moving average in the upward direction is a buy signal. When MACD falls below its 9-day moving average, it is a sell signal.

MACD Charts

The graph below shows Shopify’s daily closing prices along with the EMA 12 and EMA 26 lines in orange and green, respectively, starting on February 1, 2020.

This next chart shows the corresponding values of MACD (black) and its 9-day moving average (green).

If you compare the two graphs, you can see that MACD goes below the 0 line on the second chart on April 1, 2020. This transition is consistent with the orange line crossing above the green line on the first chart on the same date.

MACD Indicators

When Shopify’s MACD is bullish, its MACD is greater than its 9-day moving average or the black line is above the green line in the second chart above. This situation has been seen several times in the past few months – for short periods starting on February 11, March 23 and May 4 and a longer period starting on April 9.

The Apple MACD chart, shown below, has gone back and forth between bullish and bearish (black line below the green line) much more often in the past few months. It sometimes changes from bearish to bullish and back again on almost a daily basis.

The “convergence” and “divergence” part of MACD’s name refers to how the MACD behaves relative to the price. The relationship is somewhat complicated, so I suggest you refer to one of the sources I mention below if you are interested in this feature of MACD charts.

Heikin-Ashi bar chart

Also known as a Heikin-Ashi candlestick chart, the Heikin-Ashi bar chart is similar to the price part of the Price-Volume chart described above.   However, instead of using the actual high, low, open and close prices, all four of the points on the candle are calculated in a different manner. The purpose of the adjustments is to make a chart that makes identifying trends easier. I refer you to one of the resources below to learn the details of how these values are adjusted.

Heikin-Ashi Charts

The charts below show the Heikin-Ashi charts for Shopify and Apple for the past six months.

As mentioned, they look a lot like Price charts, except the boxes corresponding to the adjusted open and close and the whiskers corresponding to the adjusted high and low. The boxes are colored green when the adjusted close is higher than the previous adjusted close and red otherwise.

Heikin-Ashi Indicators

Here are some of the indicators people review when using Heikin-Ashi charts:

  • Longer boxes are indicative of trends. In the charts above, you can see that the Apple chart tends to have longer boxes than the Shopify chart.
  • When there is no whisker on one end of the box, the trend is even stronger. For example, neither the Apple nor Shopify charts have upward whiskers on the red boxes from mid-February to mid-March 2020. This time period corresponds to the time period highlighted by the red arrow on the chart below when both stocks’ prices were going down.

Similarly, almost none of the green bars in the last month of the Heishen Ashi chart have downward whiskers, corresponding to the time period in the price chart indicated by the green arrow.

Time periods when the boxes are short, have both whiskers and change color often are indicators of changes. For example, the Apple Heikin-Ashi chart from mid-January to mid-February shows several bars of alternating colors. Apple’s price changed from an upward trend to a downward trend in this period, as shown in the purple circle in the chart below. Identifying turning points is very important in deciding when to buy and sell stocks.

Who Can Use Technical Analysis

Technical analysis isn’t for everyone. It requires people who (a) have the ability to focus on markets fairly closely every day in the case of swing traders or all day in the case of day traders, (b) are happy with growing their portfolio with a large number of small “wins,” and (c) have a solid understanding of the charts being used.

Time Commitment

Unlike many other investment strategies, many day traders and swing traders do not consider a company’s financial fundamentals in their buy decisions. Instead, they monitor the patterns in their charts. Without the comfort of believing that the companies they own have sound fundamentals, it is important that they follow their charts consistently so they can quickly sell any positions that are not meeting expectations.

Lots of Small Wins

In my post on financial fundamentals, I talk about Peter Lynch’s concept of a 10-bagger – a stock whose value is at least 10 times what you paid for it. In that paradigm, the goal is to attain better-than-market-average returns by getting average returns on most of the positions in your portfolio and big gains on one or two positions.

By comparison, the goal of day traders and swing traders is to make a very small amount of money on every trade, but to make lots and lots of those trades. If you earn 0.1% on average on every trading day, it compounds to just over 20% a year!

For many of us, buying and selling with gains of less than 0.1% per security seems really small and might not seem worthwhile. As such, you need to be willing to be happy with lots of little wins rather than a 10-bagger if you want to be a day trader or swing trader.

Understand the Charts

One of the requirements of using technical analysis is to make sure you understand how to interpret the charts correctly. For example, Southwest Airlines (ticker: LUV) has done very poorly recently from the impact of COVID-19. The plot below shows its closing stock price from February 15, 2020 through May 20, 2020.

As can be seen, the last stock price on the graph (about $29) is almost exactly half of the stock price in mid-February (peaked at $58.54). As such, while it has had a few days on which the price increased, the overall trend has been down.

The RSI chart is shown below. Remember that an RSI value of less than 30 is an indication that it might be time to buy the stock.

In this example, there was a buy signal when the RSI crossed below the green line (30) on February 25. The closing stock price on that day was $49.66. If you had bought the stock on that date, you would have lost 41% in the subsequent three months as the stock was at $29 on May 20, 2020.

As you can see, interpreting charts takes time and expertise. If you are willing to invest the time to learn all of the nuances of each type of chart and monitor your positions, technical analysis might be the right investing strategy for you.

There’s a lot more to know about each of these indicators than I’ve provided in this post. Here are a few links to other sources of information to learn more.

  • Stock Charts
  • Technical Analysis for the Trading Professional by Constance Brown, McGraw-Hill Education, 2nd Edition, 2012.
  • Investopedia

How I Use Technical Analysis

I primarily rely on analysis of the underlying fundamentals of a company when I purchase individual stocks. Once I make the decision to buy a stock, I look at the charts to evaluate whether the timing is good for a purchase. If the consensus of the charts I review indicates that the position is over-bought (i.e., price is too high), I will wait to see if the price decreases before buying.

In addition, I use technical analysis in my Roth IRA, where there are no capital gains taxes on trades so more frequent trading isn’t adversely impacted. I follow a large handful of industry ETFs using technical analysis and buy and sell them as each one appears to be doing well. Because I am trading in industry exchange-traded funds (ETFs) and not individual stocks, I feel comfortable looking at my positions once a week. My thought is that industries aren’t likely to experience sudden weaknesses not seen throughout the market in shorter time frames.

When I pay sufficient attention to the positions in my Roth IRA, I tend to get about or slightly above market-average performance. However, when I don’t look at my positions and re-balance regularly, I find that my performance suffers which just confirms my first point in the previous section that using technical analysis requires time and diligence.

[1] There are now TradersExpo events held regularly in many cities (subject to change by the coronavirus).

What You Need to Know About Stocks

Stocks are a common choice for many investors.  There are two types of stocks – preferred and common.  Because most investors buy common stocks, they will be the subject of this post.  I’ll talk about what you need to know about stocks before you buy them, including:

  • Stocks and how they work.
  • The price you will pay.
  • The risks of owning stocks.
  • Approaches people use for selecting stocks.
  • How stock are taxed.
  • When you might consider buying stocks.
  • How to buy a stock.

What are Stocks?

Stocks are ownership interests in companies.  They are sometimes called equities or shares.  When you buy a stock, you receive a certificate that indicates the number of shares you own.  If you buy your investments through a brokerage firm, it will hold your certificates for you.  If you buy them directly, you will usually receive the certificate (and will want to maintain it in an extremely safe place as it is your only proof that you own the stock).  Some companies track their stock’s owners electronically, so you may not always get a physical certificate.

How Do Stocks Work?

Companies sell stock as a way to raise money.  The company receives the amount paid for the shares of stock when they are issued, minus a fee paid to the investment banker that assists with the sale.  The process of issuing stock is called a public offering.  The first time a company offers its shares to the public, it is called an initial public offering (IPO).

Stockholder-Company Interactions

After the stock has been sold by the company, the stockholder has the following interactions with the company:

  • It receives any dividends paid by the company.
  • It gets to vote on matters brought before shareholders at least annually.  These issues include election of directors, advisory input on executive compensation, selection of auditors and other matters.
  • It has the option to sell the stock back to the company if the company decides to repurchase some of its stock.

In addition to these benefits of owning stock, you also can sell it at the then-current market price at any time.

Why Companies Care About Their Stock Prices

Interestingly, after the stock has been sold by the company, future sales of the stock do not impact the finances of the company other than its impact on executive compensation.  That is, if you buy stock in a company other than when it is issued, you pay for the stock and the proceeds go to the seller (who isn’t the company)!

You might wonder, then, why a company might care about its stock price.  That’s where executive compensation comes in!  Many directors and senior executives at publicly traded companies have a portion of their compensation either paid in stock or determined based on the price of the company’s stock.  When the leadership owns a lot of stock or is paid based on the stock price, it has a strong incentive to act in a way that will increase the price of the stock.  As such, with appropriate incentive compensation for directors and executives, their interests are more closely aligned with yours (i.e., you both want the price of the company’s stock to go up).

What Price Will I Pay?

The price you will pay for a stock is the amount that the person selling the stock is willing to take in payment.  Finance theory asserts that the price of a stock should be the present value of the cash flows you will receive as the owner of a stock.

In my post on bonds, I explain present values.  They apply fairly easily to the price of a bond, as the cash flows to the owner of a bond are fairly clear – the coupons or interest payments and the return of the principal on a known date.

By comparison, the cash flows to the owner of a stock are much more uncertain.  There are two types of cash flows to the owner of a stock – dividends and the money you receive when you sell the stock.

Dividends

Dividends are amounts paid by the company to stockholders.  Many companies pay dividends every quarter or every year.  In most cases, the amount of these dividends stay fairly constant or increase a little bit every year.  The company, though, is under no obligation to pay dividends and can decide at any time to stop paying them.  As such, while many people assume that dividends will continue to be paid, there is more uncertainty in whether they will be paid than there is with bond interest.

Proceeds from the Sale of the Stock

The owner of the stock will receive an amount equal to the number of shares sold times the price per share at the time of sale.  This cash flow has two components of uncertainty to it.

  1. You don’t know when you will sell it. You therefore don’t know for how long you need to discount this cash flow to calculate the present value.
  2. It is impossible to predict the price of a stock in the future.

What are the Risks?

The biggest risk of buying a stock is that its value could decrease.   At the extreme, a company could go bankrupt.  In a bankruptcy, creditors (e.g., employees and vendors) are paid first.  If there is money left after creditors have been paid, then the remaining funds are used to re-pay a portion of any bond principal.  By definition, there isn’t enough money to pay all of the creditors and bondholders when there is a bankruptcy.  As such, the bondholders will not get all of their principal re-paid and there will be no money left after payment has been made to bondholders and creditors.  When there is no money left in the company, the stock becomes worthless.

Any of the following factors (and others) can cause the price of the stock to go down.

Economic Conditions Change

Changes in economic conditions can cause the interest rate used for discounting in the present value calculation to increase. When the interest rate increases, present values (estimates of the price) will go down.

Company Changes

Something changes at the company that causes other investors to believe that the company’s profits will be less than previously expected. One simple way that some investors estimate the price of a company’s stock is to multiply the company’s earnings by a factor, called the price-to-earnings ratio or P/E ratio.  Although P/E ratios aren’t constant over time, the price of a stock goes down when its earnings either decrease or are forecast to be lower than expected in the future. For more about P/E ratios and how a company calculates and reports on its earnings, check out this post

Increased Risk

Changes either in the economy or at the company can cause investors to think that the future profits of the company are more uncertain, i.e., riskier. When a cash flow is perceived to be riskier, a higher interest rate is used in the present value calculation.  This concept is illustrated in my post on bonds in the graph that shows how interest rates on bonds increase as the credit rating of the company goes down.  Recall that lower credit ratings correspond to higher risk.  The same concept applies to stock prices.  The prices of riskier stocks are less than the prices of less risky stocks if all other things are equal.

How Do People Decide What to Buy?

There are a number of approaches investors use to decide in which companies to buy stocks and when to buy and sell them.   I will discuss several of them in future posts.

Reasonable Price Investing

Reasonable price investors look at the financial fundaments and stock prices of companies to decide whether and when to buy and sell them.

Technical Analysis

Technical analysts, sometimes called momentum investors, look at patterns in the movement of the prices of companies’ stocks.  Day traders tend to be technical analysts whose time horizon for owning a stock can be hours or days.

High-Yield Investing

Some investors focus on companies who issue dividends.

Mutual Funds and Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs)

Rather than invest in individual companies, some investors purchase either mutual or exchange-traded funds.  Under this approach, the investor relies on the fund managers to select the companies and determine when to buy and sell each position.

Investing Clubs

A great way to get started with investing or expand your research is to join an investing club.  They provide the opportunity to pool your money with other investors to buy positions in individual companies that the group has resourced.  In addition, you get to know other people with interests similar to yours.

Turnaround Plays

Turnaround plays (companies that have struggled but are about to become successful) can produce some of the highest returns in the market.  However, identifying companies that will actually be successful under their new strategies is difficult.  As such, investing in turnaround plays can also be quite risky. The Piotroski score is one tool that can be helpful in identifying companies that are more likely to produce above-market-average returns.

How are Stocks Taxed?

There are two ways in which stocks can impact your income taxes:

  • When you receive a dividend.
  • When you sell your ownership interest in the stock.

The total amount of the dividend is subject to tax.  The difference between the proceeds of selling the stock and the amount you paid for the stock is called a realized capital gain or loss.  It is gain if the sale proceeds is more than the purchase amount and a loss if the sale proceeds are less than the purchase amount.

In the US, realized capital gains and losses on stocks you have owned for more than a year are added to dividends.  For most people, the sum of these two amounts is taxed at 15%.  For stocks owned for less than a year, the realized capital gains are taxed at your ordinary tax rate (i.e., the rate you pay on your wages).

In Canada, dividends and half of your realized capital gains are added to your wages.  The total of those amounts is subject to your ordinary income tax rate.

When Should I Buy Stocks?

Understand Stocks

The most important consideration in determining when to buy stocks is that you understand how stocks work.  One of the messages I wished I had given our children is to invest only in things you understand.  If you don’t understand stocks, you don’t want to invest in them.

Understand the Companies or Funds

You also want to make sure you understand the particular company or fund you are purchasing.  One of the biggest investing mistakes I made was when I was quite young and didn’t understand the business of the company whose stock I owned.

My parents gave me some shares of a company called Wang Laboratories.  In the 1970s and early 1980s, Wang was one of the leaders in the market for dedicated word processors.  Picture a desktop computer with a monitor that’s only software was Microsoft Word, only much harder to use.  That was Wang’s biggest product.  At one time, the stock price was $42.  Not understanding that PCs were entering the market and would be able to do so much more than a dedicated word processor, I was oblivious.  As the stock started going down, I sold a few shares in the high $30s.  When the stock dropped to $18, I told myself I would sell the rest when it got back to $21.  It never did.  A year or so later, the stock was completely worthless. Fortunately, I was young enough that I had a lot of time to recover and learn from this mistake.

Be Willing and Able to Understand the Risks

You should also not buy stocks if you can’t afford to lose some or all of your principal.  Even though only a few companies go bankrupt, such as Wang, the price of individual stocks can be quite volatile.  As discussed in my post on diversification, you can reduce the chances that your portfolio will have a decline in value by either owning a large number of stocks or owning them for a long time.  Nonetheless, you might find that the value of your portfolio is less than the amount you invested especially over short periods of time when you invest in stocks.  If you want to invest in stocks, you need to be willing to tolerate those ups and downs in value both mentally and financially.

Market Timing

There is an old investing adage, “Buy low, sell high.”  In principle, it is a great strategy.  In practice, though, it is hard to identify the peaks and valleys in either the market as a whole or an individual stock.

People who invest over very short time frames – hours or days – often use technical analysis to try to identify very short-term highs and lows to create gains.  I anticipate that most of my followers, though, will be investing for the long term and not day trading.  While you will want to select stocks that are expected to produce a return commensurate with their riskiness, it is very difficult to time the market.

That is, my suggestion for new investors with long-term investment horizons (e.g., for retirement or your young children’s college expenses) is to buy stocks or mutual funds you understand and think are likely to appreciate whenever you have the time and money available to do so.  If you happen to buy a fundamentally sound stock or index fund just before its price drops, it will be difficult to hang on but it is likely to increase in the price by the time you need to sell it.

As Chris @MoneyStir learned when he reviewed the post I wrote about whether he should pre-pay his mortgage, a fall in the stock market right after he started using his extra cash to buy stocks on a monthly basis was actually good for him!  While he lost money at first on his first few month’s investments, the ones he made over the next several months were at a lower stock price and produced a higher-than-average return over his investment horizon.  The process of buying stocks periodically, such as every month, is called dollar-cost averaging.

How and Where Do I Buy Stocks?

You can buy stocks, mutual funds and ETFs at any brokerage firm.  This article by Invested Wallet provides details on how to open an account at a brokerage firm.

Once you have an account, you need to know the name of the company or its symbol (usually 2-5 letters that can be found using Google or Yahoo Finance, for example), how many shares you want to buy and whether you want to set the price at which you purchase the stocks, use dollar-cost averaging to purchase them over a period of time or buy them at the market price.

Limit Orders

If you determine you want to buy a stock at a particular price, it is called a limit order.  The advantage of a limit order is you know exactly how much you will pay.  The disadvantages of a limit order are:

  • You might pay more than you have to if the stock price is lower at the time you place your order.
  • You might not buy the stock if no one is interested in selling the stock at a price that is a low as your desired purchase price.

Market Orders

If you place a market order, you will buy the stock at whatever price sellers are willing to take for their stock at the moment you place your order.  In some cases, you may end up paying more than you want for a stock if the price jumps up right at the time you place your order.  The advantages of a market order are (1) you know you will own the stock and (2) you know you are getting the best price available at the time you buy the stock.

Transaction Fees

Many of the major brokerage firms have recently announced that they will no longer charge you each time you purchase or sell a stock.  Some firms charge you small transaction fees, such as $4.95, each time you place a buy or sell order.  Other firms have higher charges.  You’ll want to consider the fees when you select a brokerage firm.