Ideally, you buy stock or currencies at its lowest price and sell at its highest.
Practically speaking, you do the best you can between these unpredictable extremes.
For, as you will see, the low does not become apparent until your stock begins to rise above it, the high is not established until your stock begins to drop away.
Although all of us could wish it otherwise, no bells, no flashing lights, no 21-gun salutes ever mark the bottom or the top.
Timing your stock transactions, therefore, is perhaps the most delicate element of investment, the decision requiring the keenest judgment and the surest touch. Experience helps, although success is not necessarily proportional to it. Veterans of the market, men who have been buying and selling for 30 or 40 years, sometimes seem to have a sixth sense about turning points, up or down, for individual stocks, or industrial groups, or the market as a whole.
On what seems to be no discernible evidence, they will mutter, “Well, I think the market’s going to fall out of bed,” and, sure enough, within a week there is a 9 or 10 point reaction. Yet newcomers may also acquire this skill with surprising speed.
Since judgment is a subjective quality, there are no firm rules for applying it. But there are generalities that can begin to define objectives and delimit areas of choice. And there are a number of techniques which attempt, more or less successfully, to better the average results obtained from trying to calculate timing arbitrarily.
Most professionals will tell you, right off, not to try for the extremes. The surest way to miss tops or bottoms is to wait for that last extra point of gain, that one more point of drop. Usually, an investor is considered to have done very well if he buys or sells within 5 points of the limit on a moderate-to-wide swing, within a point or two over a narrow range.
Another way of looking at the ideal objective is to reverse it: try to avoid selling at the low or buying at the top. This may seem to be superfluous advice, but both have happened many times when emotion entered heavily into judgment. Buying near or at the top is a temptation when a stock has been rising swiftly and steadily and the investor is eager to get aboard. The top, after all, is only relative.
New tops may be within reach which will make the current one seem a reasonable buying level. Selling near or at a low is tempting when a stock has slid downward and the holder has become disenchanted with it. The impulse is to sell out, take the loss, avoid further trouble, and be well rid of the dog.
The correctness of these decisions cannot be judged in the abstract. They depend, first, on your objectives (See Chapter 3) and on how closely or satisfactorily you have realized them. And they depend on your analysis of the several dimensions of highness and lowness involved.
Buying for income is relatively easy. The indicated dividend divided by the current price will give the yield in percentage terms. If the yield suits you, and investigation suggests that it is likely to be maintained, the price is right, whether it is in the high, middle, or low range for the year.
The problem of the buyer-for-income in recent years, of course, has been the fact that a rising market has reduced yields to some very uninspiring levels. The average yield of 10 big oils in the first quarter of 1959 was 3 per cent. For five chemicals it was 2.24 per cent. For seven steels it was 3.85 per cent. Only the better railroads were around 5 per cent, as a group.
Strictly on an income basis, the investor would do better at the savings bank than in oils and chemicals, and might be considered to have missed his market in these categories. The choice then is whether to argue himself into accepting 3 or 3.5 per cent (or 2.2 if he wants G.E., 1.5 if he wants Dow) in a sought-after category, whether to switch categories, or whether to ignore the market until conditions are more to his liking. There may also be a temptation to jump into a stock that for some reason is still yielding 5 or 6 per cent, although it would be foolish to do so without determining why it has maintained a high price/dividend relationship when everything else is low.
If the objective is capital gain, timing becomes more crucial. Somehow you must determine how many more points above the current price your stock is likely to go, and whether this will be a satisfactory profit, considering that possibly 25 per cent of it will go for taxes.
All rises must be predicated on earnings, or the expectation of earnings. Take, for instance, a stock selling at 50 and paying $2. This is a 4 per cent yield, which, we’ll say, is about average for this market this year.
Now, news gets out that it is possible that the company will earn $6 per share by year’s end. Since a 50-per cent payout is the general practice, a dividend rise to $3 is indicated.
Naturally, there will be a small rush toward the stock and a rise in the market price, probably to 75, or the new equivalent of 4 per cent.
This is the simplest sort of cause-and-effect relationship, so simple, in fact, that it practically never happens just this way. If prices reacted exclusively on good or bad dividend news or expectations, the market would be far more static than it is. Still, earnings and the benefits there from that shower down on the stockholder are the basic premise of stock activity.
The biggest complicating factor is the general absence of hard information. It’s rare that a jump in earnings can be positively pin-pointed, or pin-pointed before a market rise has taken effect. As a result, most investors have to contend with a vast range of other investors’ hopes, guesses, anticipations, and facts.
Furthermore, the stocks believed to have the greatest potential for growth usually vary the general pattern. The Dows, Minneapolis Honeywells, Owens-Cornings, and Minnesota Minings have long since been pushed to levels where their dividend returns are virtually meaningless, and where perhaps even their growth potential has been completely discounted.
Still, these extremities were more marked when stocks generally were yielding 5 and 6 per cent. Now that so many yield 3 and under, the growth specials do not seem so unreasonable at less than 2.