Stock Trading vs. Buy and Hold

The goal of most investors generally is to buy low and sell high. This can result in two quite different approaches to equity investing.

One approach is described as "trading." Trading involves following the short-term price fluctuations of different stocks closely and then trying to buy low and sell high. Traders usually decide ahead of time the percentage increase they're looking for before you sell (or decrease before they buy).

While trading has tremendous potential for immediate rewards, it also involves a fair share of risk because a stock may not recover from a downswing within the time frame you'd like—and may in fact drop further in price. In addition, frequent trading can be expensive, since every time you buy and sell, you may pay broker's fees for the transaction. Also, if you sell a stock that you haven't held for a year or more, any profits you make are taxed at the same rate as your regular income, not at your lower tax rate for long-term capital gains.

Be aware that trading should not be confused with "day trading," which is the rapid buying and selling of stock to capitalize on small price changes. Day trading can be extremely risky, especially if you attempt to day trade using borrowed money. Individual investors frequently lose money by trying to use this approach.

A very different investing strategy—called buy-and-hold—involves keeping an investment over an extended period, anticipating that the price will rise over time. While buy-and-hold reduces the money you pay in transaction fees and short-term capital gains taxes, it requires patience and careful decision-making. As a buy-and-hold investor, you generally choose stocks based on a company's long-term business prospects. Increases in the stock price over years tend to be based less on the volatile nature of the market's changing demands and more on what's known as the company's fundamentals, such as its earnings and sales, the expertise and vision of its management, the fortunes of its industry, and its position in that industry.

Buy-and-hold investors still need to take price fluctuations into account, and they must pay attention to the stock's ongoing performance. Naturally, the price at which you buy a stock directly affects the potential profits you'll make from its sale. So it makes sense to buy the stock at a price you believe is reasonable. While you hold the stock, it's also important to watch for signs that your investment isn't going the direction you planned—for example, if the company regularly misses its earnings targets, or if developments in the industry turn bleaker.

Sometimes you'll decide, after reviewing the company's fundamentals, that it's worthwhile to ride out a slump in price and wait for a stock to recover. Other times, you may decide you'll have better returns if you sell your holding and invest elsewhere. Either way, it's important to stay on top of the stocks you own by paying attention to news that could affect their value.