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Stock trading volumes at online brokerages went from high to stratospheric in the month of January and customers are raging about the impact on their investing.

A big complaint I’ve heard in recent days is that investors eager to buy a particular stock can’t place a trade because their broker’s website is either down or not responding. The way things are going in the stock markets in early 2021, this generally means watching a stock climb higher. A missed opportunity, in other words.

Investor behaviour is a big reason why online broker service is so bad

Fear of missing out on big gains is a huge driver of what’s happening in the stock market. Arguably, investors should be at least as fearful of not being able to sell a stock in a timely way.

A lot of investors have done well since stocks hit bottom last winter and began a rally that has continued in 2021. There could be more upside for stocks, but the exuberance of recent trading does make you wonder if a market peak is near. In that light, it seems sensible to consider an exit strategy. Maybe sell a profitable position outright, or pare it down. When the current rally ends, as it will, the turnaround could be sudden. Panic selling could jam up brokers even worse than they are right now.

If there’s a “quiet” day for the markets, take advantage by putting in a sell order or two. To give yourself a better chance of avoiding broker website gridlock, avoid trading in the hour after the market opens and before the market close. If you find your broker’s website won’t co-operate, stay with it until you get your sell trades done. There’s reason to be more persistent with attempts to sell right now than to buy.

Stop-loss orders are a way to get shares sold automatically when they fall to, or below, a particular price you select. In a fast-falling market, your shares could easily be sold for less than what you hoped to get.

Many brokers offer stop-limit orders, where you set a minimum price you’d accept. These orders aren’t foolproof, either. A plunging stock can blow past your floor price and your sell order never gets executed.

Stop orders are worth a thought, but they don’t offer full protection against a sharp turn in the market. The answer is to be pro-active and persistent in taking profits now, before the rush to come at some point in the future.

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