The hidden dangers of online trading

It doesn’t get as much play in the media as it did a decade ago, but even in the volatile market of 2018, online trading carries hidden dangers that aren’t always evident at first.

The main risk comes from the fact that online trading may seem deceptively easy. The lower costs and higher speeds of online trading can lead otherwise conservative investors to trade too frequently. That can lead you to sell your best picks when they are just getting started.

The apparent ease of online trading may even prompt conservative investors to take up short-term trading or day trading. That’s just another danger of trading stocks online: there’s a large random element in short-term stock-price fluctuations that you just can’t get away from.

Lower costs attractive, but Investment Quality makes money

This random element can be profitable for short periods. But you can’t reliably profit from it over the long term. In fact, most short-term traders wind up losing money. By the time their beginners’ luck fades, many are trading in dangerously large quantities.

Frequent trading can also lead you to buy lower-quality, thinly traded stocks. The danger arises from the fact that the bid and ask spreads of many of these investments can be so wide that the share price will have to go up significantly before you’ll even begin to make money on a sale.

You can make trades quickly in online trading, and that cuts your commission costs. However, for successful investors, this is a bonus, not the object of trading stocks.

It is far more important to focus on high-quality, well-established companies and how they fit in your portfolio. The longer you hold these stocks, the greater the chance that your profits will improve, as well.

Here are two other dangers to avoid in online trading. Both can seriously hurt your long-term returns:

1.) Practice accounts can breed false confidence

Some investors are nervous about trading stocks online. So, instead of jumping right in, they start off by using the “practice accounts” or “demo accounts” that the online brokerage industry initiated several years ago. Practice accounts are supposed to be identical to real accounts in all but one respect: you buy stocks in them with imaginary or “play” money, rather than the real thing.

The brokerage industry says this gives would-be traders a free opportunity to learn how to trade online without risking any money. Using an online broker’s practice account, you can learn online trading essentials, such as how to enter an order to sell or buy stocks; how to double-check your order before submitting it, so you avoid obvious but common mistakes, like buying 10,000 shares when you only meant to buy 1,000; and so on. The big risk with practice accounts is that you’ll try out a risky and ultimately unwinnable investment approach, like day trading or options trading, and hit a lucky streak. This could embolden you to put serious money at risk just when your results are about to regress to the mean. This will deliver losses instead of profits.

2.) Automated stock-picking systems can backfire

Some investors who trade stocks online use automated stock-picking systems to help them make investment decisions. These systems are typically marketed with impressive-looking performance records designed to make investors think they are sure to make guaranteed profits. However, those records are typically derived by “back-testing” the program against past data. In other words, the promoters go back through old trading records and see what would have worked in the past.

Automated stock-picking systems essentially do two things: First, they narrow down the data you use when you make investment decisions. Second, they apply a fixed rule, or rules, to draw a conclusion or an investment decision from that selection of data. Unfortunately, the market’s key concerns continually change. Today’s good investments can turn into tomorrow’s dead ends. For a time, these systems seem to work, but that’s usually coincidental. If the market is going up and the system tells you to buy volatile investments, it automatically generates profitable trades. But they can just as quickly turn around and begin pumping out unprofitable trades. Often this happens just when they can do the most damage to the investor relying on the system.

Bonus Tip: Building a “Buy and watch closely” portfolio

Of course, there are a variety of ways to build an investment portfolio. Some work better than others. But our Buy and watch closely approach has done well for our portfolio management clients over the past few decades. We recommend this approach for our readers as well.

We start by applying our three-part Successful Investor rule for portfolio construction:

  1. Invest mainly in high-quality, well-established companies, with a history of earnings if not dividends;
  2. Diversify across most if not all of the five main economic sectors (Manufacturing & Industry; Resources & Commodities; Consumer; Finance; Utilities);
  3. Downplay or stay out of stocks that are in the broker/media limelight. This limelight raises investor expectations to dangerous levels. When stocks fail to live up to those heightened expectations, share-price slumps can be swift and brutal.

We advise selling particular stocks when we feel the situation has changed and they no longer qualify as high-quality investments. We also sell if we decide that a stock isn’t as high-quality or well-established as it needs to be, to cope with the challenges it faces. Of course, many of our sales are due to a successful takeover of a company’s stock, which generally results in a major profit for our clients.

Pat McKeough has been one of Canada’s most respected investment advisors for over three decades. He is the founder and senior editor of TSI Network and the founder of Successful Investor Wealth Management. He is also the author of several acclaimed investment books. This article was originally published in 2012 and is regularly updated, most recently on July 9, 2018. It is republished on the Hub with permission. 


One thought on “The hidden dangers of online trading

  1. Despite codes of conduct rules and statutues mandating that federally regulated entities are fully accountable and responsible for ensuring the goods Tools and services outsourced to third party vendors and recycled back to discount brokerage investors be fully compliant with securities law and industry codes of conduct. The nexus of oversight fail to vet and correct terms of services when retail open accounts to invest to ensure they are compliance. Atleast one large bank has shifted the liability for shoddy goods and services to retail investors. When the nexus of oversight was alerted excuses rather than action was the response
    Since oversight don’t vet the contract terms when retail open up on line brokerage accounts it is a case of investor beware

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