By Mike Cintolo
If someone asks me what the toughest part of investing is, I always mention the usual suspects, such as dealing with earnings season, getting stuck in a thinly-traded stock that's falling rapidly or the vicious ups and downs we've all experienced during the past few years.
But after all that, I always talk about the "silent killers," which in my opinion are what really do you in over time. What are these silent killers? They all revolve around stuff that you don't do.
For instance, when you buy a stock and it immediately falls apart, that's an obvious mistake-you likely misread the stock's pattern or mis-timed the overall market. However, less quantifiable is the stock you didn't buy -- you might have missed out on three of the big leaders of the market and, because of that, you found yourself owning some second-rate names.
You can flip it around as well. It's obvious to every investor when they make a mistake on the sell side; you sell a stock at 50 and, within minutes, it begins to rally and a month later it's at 60 ... and you agonize every point on the way up. What's less obvious is the stock where you misplaced a stop, setting it too loose-maybe the stock fell through its 50-day line and you held on for a few more days or weeks, eventually selling a few points lower than you should have.
I'm writing about this today because, with the market temporarily down and out (more on that below), now's a good time to take a couple of hours over the weekend and review your performance year-to-date. While it's always important to do a year-end review, I like to periodically do some post-op analysis when the market is down and I have some cash on the sideline. Why wait until year-end to make adjustments?
Anyway, if you do take up this task during the next weekend or two, be sure to account for these silent killers, and try to come up with some rules to correct them. I'm convinced that most investors never correct for these, and that's the main reason they continue to struggle.
On the first front-missing out on a big winner-the thing to remember is that any good system has a method to get you out of a trade if it goes awry (your loss limit will kick you out for a tolerable loss), but very few systems have a method of getting you in if you "miss out" on a proper buy point in what turns out to be a big winner.
Thus, the goal is to figure out something that will give you a shot at both: getting into a big winner initially (possibly buying a smaller-than-normal position if the stock is extended to the upside) and holding on to a big winner once you have it (possibly by doing some offensive selling on the way up, or by setting it aside mentally and giving it more rope than usual).
On the sell side, when it comes to setting stops, the real key is making sure your overall risk is in line with what you can stand. It's one thing to set a loose stop to give a stock room to breathe, but it's another to have the stop so far down on the chart that the stock will be broken long before it hits the stop.
Basically, these silent killers aren't much different than "the one that got away" in real life-that house you didn't buy, that job offer you decided not to take or the girl you didn't ask out. In real life, people tend to remember (even obsess) about these moments, but when it comes to stocks, most forget about them. My advice is: Don't!
Now on to what everyone is curious about: the state of the current market. The market's correction that began in early April continues, and I have to be honest; it's been a bit deeper and more painful than I would have guessed a few weeks back. I'm not referring so much to the major indexes (which are down 5% to 7.5% from their peaks) but to leading stocks, which were absolutely lynched from last Thursday through Tuesday of this week (May 3 through May 7).
The question is where stocks go from here. I offer no predictions, but after the damage this week, I would say there's a 30% chance that the panicky selloff this week will mark a sustainable low to this five-week correction ... but more likely, a 70% chance that the market needs more time to repair the damage that's been done.
Remember that when it comes to individual stocks, names that break down on huge volume have fallen off a motorcycle at high speed. When that happens, the rider doesn't just get up and keep riding; he needs some time in the hospital recuperating. It's the same with stocks, which need time to quiet down and ready themselves for new upmoves.
The good news is that it's easiest to isolate strength when everything is falling apart. So the main goal now is to keep an eye on stocks that A) have found support at or close to their 50-day moving average, B) are showing some big volume buying of late, telling you big investors are using weakness as a buying opportunity, C) have reacted well to earnings in recent days or weeks, D) have a growth story that you really believe in and E) have enough liquidity (average daily dollar volume traded) to allow big investors to take positions.
One name I'm keeping an eye on is Ariba (NASDAQ:ARBA), a small company with a huge story-it's basically the eBay (NASDAQ:EBAY) or Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) of business-to-business commerce, with thousands of companies using the firm's software and e-commerce network to cut costs or expand their base of buyers. Here's what I wrote about the stock in Cabot Top Ten Trader back on April 30:
"Even in today's world of smartphones, tablets and high-speed networks, most business commerce is still conducted manually and with paper invoices and payments. Ariba is changing all that, aiming to be something of a business-to-business eBay or Amazon; the company bills itself as the world's leading business commerce network where ﬁrms of all sizes can connect to their suppliers online. It's a win-win for everyone involved-purchasers save money and gain visibility, suppliers beneﬁt from a huge and expanding base of buyers, and Ariba makes money from all of them through subscriber fees and per-transaction earnings.
The potential going forward is truly enormous; Ariba's network handles $300 billion of transactions every year, but that's just 10% of what its current customers spend in B-to-B transactions, so even if no new customers are inked there's still plenty of upside. (The goal is to get to $1 trillion in the next ﬁve to six years.) We see no reason why it can't get there, as the company is the leader in just about every B-to-B segment (sourcing, procurement, invoice management, working capital management, etc.), and it's already a global player, with about 40% of revenues coming from outside North America. Of course, there's always a fear that if the global economy sputters, so will business spending, but last week's quarterly report showed that, if anything, Ariba's business is accelerating as subscribers and network activity pick up. We like it."
The stock had a great run from 2009 to 2011, but then built a 10-month base during the second half of 2011 and the first four months of 2012. The company's first quarter report changed that, with the stock catapulting from 35.5 to 39.5 in one day on one of its heaviest volume days ever.
Thus, looking at our criteria above, ARBA has remained above its 50-day line since early March, saw great volume buying of late (it's also hovering near its highs despite the market's decline), surged on earnings and has a big story that has plenty of growth ahead of it.
As for liquidity, the stock averages about $40 million of shares per day-a bit light, but it's been heavier since the company reported earnings, and I'm thinking ARBA might be "growing up" as institutions take positions.
You could buy a small position (maybe one-third or one-half of what you would normally purchase) up here, but for my part I'm just watching and waiting for the market's intermediate-term trend to turn back up.
Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.