NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
It's sickening. Oracle around $7. Sun Micro below $3. Lucent struggling to stay above $1.
Sure, you thought about selling in the past two years, but the price always seemed too low. Then stocks fell more. Now, you're a lot poorer, and wondering if you should give up on the market and throw whatever pocket change you have left into an index fund.
"You have folks who are mad at stocks -- but they're really mad at themselves because they were engaging wishful thinking," said Ron Roge, a certified financial planner from Bohemia, N.Y. "Just don't look back. What really matters is what the market is going to do in the future."
Fish or cut bait?
Part of the problem is that it's hard to tell a lousy stock that you shouldn't have bought in the first place from a quality stock that is just suffering with everything else.
|1. Be wary of corporate accounting problems
|2. Stick with solid Wall Street names
|3. Don't expect stocks to return to their bubble highs
It's an easy decision if you own a dot.com that is struggling to stay in business -- just sell and be done with it. And most planners suggest getting out of stocks plagued by scandals. There's just too much risk for a small investor. Deb Neiman, a certified financial planner from Wakefield, Mass., recently advised her clients to sell Tyco, whose former CEO Dennis Kozlowski was indicted on fraud charges. Tyco is one of several large corporations whose books are under scrutiny by prosecutors and federal regulators.
Likewise, if you bought AT&T at $60 a share back in 1999 and watched it shrink to around $12, it might be time to sell, Roge said. You might put the money in Oakmark fund, which includes AT&T among a diversified mix of around 50 stocks. Or you could try another solid fund that may not necessarily own a particular stock on your radar screen -- Roge likes Dodge & Cox Stock, Excelsior Value & Restructuring and Whitehall Growth.
"People who hold individual stocks that have been beaten down like this identify with how good it is to be diversified," Roge said. "Just move on at this point."
Other cases aren't so easy. What about Citigroup? Or Cisco? Or IBM? They're all trading near their 52-week lows.
If your stocks have a solid history on Wall Street, with dependable cash flow and strong earnings growth, then consider hanging on, said Rick Applegate, a certified financial planner from Allison Park, Pa. The tenets of long-term investing haven't changed. If you buy solid stocks and hold them for a long time, you'll make money. An investor who has stayed in the market for at least 15 years has never lost money, according to research by Ibbotson Associates. (Click here for more on thinking long-term and other bear-market survival strategies.)
In technology, the keepers should be the leaders in their sectors, whether it's software or chips, Applegate said. That might mean you hold onto Cisco, even if you will wait longer than you expected for technology to wake up.
Ditto for IBM. The stock traded as high as $130 in 1999 but is now trading around $63. But Mari Adam, a certified financial planner in Boca Raton, Fla., said she has clients -- a couple -- who are sticking with Big Blue.
Still can't let go?
If you still can't sell a former high-flier, at least reduce your exposure to no more than 5 percent of your portfolio, said Bud Kasper, a certified financial planner in Kansas City, Mo. Plenty of people have a hard time paring a large weighting in a stock if they have worked for the company. Kasper has one client with 13.5 percent of his IRA in SBC Communication because he used to work for Southwestern Bell, an SBC division. The stock is down nearly 41 percent this year.
"People get so emotional with stocks, especially when they work for the company," Kasper said.
Whatever you decide, make sure emotion isn't getting in the way. I bought the stock at $100 and now it's at $5 and I'm just going to hold on. "You can hold it till your purple, and you're not going to get back to the top of the bubble," Applegate said.
So forget about trying to get back to even -- that's not the point. Your job is to accept the fact that you made a mistake and then evaluate and move on.
And if you do have a loss, at least you can take some comfort in the potential tax break, using losses to offset gains. Since most people don't have gains these days, you can use losses to offset up to $3,000 in ordinary income.
If you still have a loss left over after that, you can "carry forward" $3,000 of the loss every year until it's used up. Neiman has a client who is down by $30,000 in 2002, which gives him 10 years to take advantage of the carry-forward rule.