“’Quit while you’re ahead’ is incredibly bad advice” for selling stocks, argues Annie Duke, the $4 million-plus pro poker champ turned decision strategist, in an interview with ThinkAdvisor.
The real issue is: “Would you buy the stock today? If you wouldn’t, then you should sell it; if you would, you should hold it. It’s really that simple,” Duke says.
“The whole key is being able to distinguish between things that have a positive expected value and those that have a negative expected value,” she explains.
Duke retired from professional poker in 2012 to develop a burgeoning career as a corporate consultant, speaker and writer. (Well, there was another reason, too, as she reveals in the interview.) Her clients include Citibank and Hartford Funds, among numerous other companies.
Now the bestselling author of “Thinking in Bets” and “How to Decide” has released a provocative new book, “Quit: The Power of Knowing When to Walk Away” (Portfolio/Penguin, Oct. 4, 2022).
In the interview, she stresses: “Quitting is a trait that’s as important to develop as is grit.”
What prompts folks to quit too early or too late? A myriad of rationalizations and biases.
Financial advisors need to know when it’s correct to quit or to stick to help clients make better investments, Duke notes.
Clients “are not super-rational about those decisions,” Duke says. For example, they’ll often “blow through” their stop-loss orders — if indeed they’ve established any at all.
But sticking with something can be “downright destructive,” argues the strategist, explaining why in the interview.
Co-founder of the Alliance for Decision Education, Duke contends that though setting goals is motivating, it “can create really bad behavior.” And she explains why unchecked optimism prevents you from quitting “when you ought to walk away.”
ThinkAdvisor recently held a phone interview with Duke, who was speaking from her base outside Philadelphia.
She highly recommends working with a “quitting coach.” That could be a financial advisor, of course. And she maintains that it’s a great idea to take calls from recruiters even if you’re happy at your firm.
“It’s not disloyal to your job,” she insists. “You’re just doing some exploration.”
Here are highlights of our interview:
THINKADVISOR: “The tragedy of quitting while you’re ahead costs money,” you write. Most people usually subscribe to that aphorism. Why don’t you?
ANNIE DUKE: It’s not about quitting while you’re ahead or staying when you’re behind, or whatever.
It’s quit when it’s not worth continuing, and stick when it’s worth continuing.
If the issue is [selling a stock, for example], quit while you’re ahead is incredibly bad advice because it’s not giving you the right reason to quit, which is, essentially: Would you buy the stock today? If you wouldn’t, then you should sell it; if you would, you should hold it. It’s really that simple.
Retail investors will blow through their stop-loss orders to hold those stocks and keep the gamble on to get their money back.
What’s interesting is they also cancel take-gain orders.
They might have a take-gain order to sell at $60 a stock they bought at $50, but they may sell well before it ever gets to $60.
In other words, they’re “quitting while they’re ahead.” They’re selling too early because they’re ahead.
They don’t like to keep the gamble on when [they’re] ahead, so they sell earlier than when [they] committed to in advance.
Why is it so important for financial advisors to know when to quit?
Their role is to help people improve their decision on both sides of the [stick or quit] equation: when we should hold, when we should sell. People [clients] are not super-rational about those decisions.
If you’re holding a stock that you wouldn’t buy today, that’s clearly an error.
So an advisor has to know when it’s correct to quit or stick to help clients be better investors, both through coaching and the way they think about making a particular investment decision [at the outset].
The whole key is being able to distinguish between things that have a positive expected value and those that have a negative expected value. [For the latter], you have to think not just in terms of the absolute but relative to other things.
This is a little bit of why you want to have exit criteria.
Please talk about that, also known as kill criteria. Why is it important?
Science is very clear that once we start down a course of action, when we get signals telling us that we ought to stop, we’re very good at rationalizing away or ignoring them; and we’ll actually escalate our commitment and believe in it even more.
This is where kill criteria come in.
[Before] you enter into something, [determine] what the signals could be that would tell you that you ought to exit.
So you’re making a commitment to exit when you see those kill criteria.
Having a stop-loss is a good example of part of your kill criteria.
“Goals can motivate you to stay longer than is worthwhile,” you write. How so?
Goals are motivating forces, but the bad thing about them is that they create a very clearly defined finish line.
Some roads aren’t worthwhile. So setting goals with that clearly defined finish line can create really bad behavior: We’ll continue on roads that we ought not continue on.
By setting a goal, you [may] stop making decisions about whether to hold a stock based on the reality of the quality of the investment because you don’t want to sell it short of your goal.
Sometimes sticking with something is “downright destructive,” you write. In what situations?
You’ve made an investment, and all the signs are telling you that it isn’t going well. But you stick to it for a variety of reasons: You don’t want to have wasted the money you’ve put into it, for instance.
The pain of selling now and [maybe] having to watch the stock go up is so great that you won’t let it go for fear of having to experience that.
So you hold onto the stock. If you were to look at it with fresh eyes today, you would never buy it.
But you hold on to it. That’s obviously disastrous for your bank account. You’re holding a dog simply because at some early point it looked like a pretty good buy.
But you’re not being forced to hold it. Right?
The good news is that we have the option to sell the stock. The problem is that we don’t exercise that option.
This is why I say to set deadlines and kill criteria because there’s a huge cost to sticking to something too long.
Does having kill, or exit, criteria mean you’re throwing emotion out the window?
People think that when you take your emotion out of it, you become a robot. What I’m saying is to [decide] things in advance, when you’re calmer, when you’re not actually facing down the decision.
It’s really not about emotion; it’s about what you value — what makes you happy and what doesn’t.