x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Robotic approach takes gobstopper temptation away

Time waits for no man when it comes to imaginary trading on the stockmarket.

Two alerts pop up within two hours of each other on the same day. Neither bear glad tidings. "Hello Jonathan," says the first, with a disarmingly chatty tone. "You asked us to alert you when the price of Standard Life fell to 231 [pence]."

Yes, yes, so get on with it!

"As at 15:01:47 today the price stood at 230.8p. Best regards, The Share Centre."

Best regards? Bloody robots.

The next lands two hours later - or, to be accurate, seeing as we are in the realm of the distressingly precise, exactly two hours, three minutes and two seconds later.

"Hello Jonathan," it begins, winningly, but this time I'm not fooled and brace myself for the impending disappointment. And, as far as that goes, at least, I'm not disappointed. Legal & General has dipped under the bar I had set at 105p to 104.8p.

And now, of course, further robotic machinations are set in train.

Last week, in a fever of enthusiasm for the newly discovered auto-helm function of my Share Centre trading account, I not only set up alerts to keep me abreast of significant price movements on my shares, I also set in place a series of stop-loss orders - and, I must confess, felt rather pleased with myself.

In the event of a price collapse, I had guarded myself against catastrophic loss by ordering an automated sell on three of my increasingly wobbly stocks. Dumbly, I now realise, I set the bail-out point at precisely the same level as the price alert, which in effect rendered the alert utterly redundant - rather like setting an aircraft's ground-proximity warning to start hollering at ground level.

What I should have done, I now realise, was give myself some room to manoeuvre by setting the alert a little higher than the sale price. Another lesson learnt the hard way.

The result was that by the time I had logged on to my account the software had done its unthinking duty and flogged off Standard Life for 230.7p - missing my target sell price of 231p by 0.3p, an admittedly slender discrepancy but one that makes the oddly chilling point that even robotic software can't always move quite as fast as the market - and Legal & General for 104.8p. Again, a mere - yet nevertheless disconcerting - 0.2p under my target of 105p.

It wasn't all bad news. Good old Prudential had stood its ground, even edging back from the brink of my stop-loss to gain 3p, and of my two remaining stocks was now my most valuable: its 637 shares now worth £4,025.84.

Aviva, on the other hand, had not fared quite so well. Over-optimistically, as it turns out, I had set not only a stop-loss on this stock, at 390p, but also a sell order, should it reach 430p, earning me a profit of 15p per share. Ha ha. In the event, it did neither, settling stubbornly at a middling price of 400.8p; 6 per cent down on the original purchase price. Disgusted, I leave its fate in the hands of the robot.

And then another lesson hove into view. Those two automated sales had swollen the cash column of my account to the tune of £8,424.45, meaning that for a couple of days, while my attention was elsewhere, I had had £8,586.19 standing idle. This is the cardinal sin of trading. Cash in the hand might just as well be cash under the mattress. The whole point is to make your money work, not to give it an ill-earned break.

But what to buy? I gaze at the full FTSE list like a child with his nose pressed to the window of a sweet shop. It all looks delicious to me, but from my brief experience I know that some of those seemingly appetising bull's eyes, gobstoppers and Swizzels Matlow parma violets are almost certainly laced with arsenic, cyanide and hemlock.

In the end, of course, the robot does it for me. One of the many handy search tools on the Share Centre website shows me which stocks have attracted the most "buy" recommendations from the largest number of brokers and, seen in that light, my way becomes clear and I put £2,000 each into four new stocks.

BG Group, the former British Gas, which is now a major global energy player developing new gas and oil fields in the Middle East and Caspian Sea (and, with 12 broker "buy" votes, top of the pops); First Quantum Minerals, a mining company whose share price is currently more than 600p down from the top end of its 12-month range of 3,200p to 5,945p (also 12 votes); BHP Billiton, a multi-minerals mining company, the product of a merger of Australian and South African parentage (10 votes); and British Land, one of the UK's oldest property groups - and we all know what bargains are on offer there at the moment (also 10).

This flurry of trading has left me with a rainy-day cash float of £643.30 and a portfolio value only marginally down on last week - not bad, considering I have just incurred half a dozen trading fees and added four new strings to my bow.

The temptation now is to set stop-losses and sale targets right away, but prudence dictates that I should watch how these newcomers fare for a day or two before handing them over to robotic nursing care. What I will do, however, is set up e-mail alerts to watch for any overly dramatic ups or downs, which inserts a human touch into the decision process. Why should the robot have all the fun?