Sunday, June 3, 2007

Stock Market Basics

For readers who are just starting out in the world of saving and investing, here are the basics of the U.S. stock and bond markets. (The financial markets of other nations can be quite different, so research them separately.) There’s much more to learn if you want to become an active investor. But you can get an idea of the concepts here.

1. The corporation is an organization. It sells pieces of itself, called “stock,” in order to raise money to conduct business. (In other words, it takes money to make money, for corporations as well as people.) People who buy stock become owners (collectively with all the other stockholders) of the corporation.

2. Stock. When you buy a share of stock, you own a tiny portion of the corporation. The stock will increase in value if the corporation does well, and it will decrease in value if the corporation does poorly. Many people refer to stock as “shares” (as in shares of stock). If you want to invest in a particular stock, research it carefully.

3. Bonds. A bond is a way that corporations and governments borrow money. An investor lends them a fixed amount of money (e.g., $10,000), which is called the “principal.” They pay interest on the bond for a stated amount of time (e.g., 10 years), and then, if all goes well, they repay the principal (i.e., the money originally invested in the bond). Corporate bonds have “credit risk,” meaning the risk that the corporation might be unable to pay them. Government bonds are less likely to have this problem if they are issued by the governments of wealthy nations. But government bonds of less well-off nations can have significant credit risk. The riskier a bond, the higher the interest rate it will have. Be careful investing in bonds that offer a high return—the return reflects a higher risk that you won’t be repaid.

4. Mutual Funds. Mutual funds are a type of corporation used for investment purposes. Their business consists of investing in stocks and/or bonds. When you invest in a mutual fund, you are buying shares of the mutual fund. That gives you an interest in the fund’s holdings of stocks and/or bonds. The value of your mutual fund shares is based on the values of the fund’s holdings of stocks and/or bonds, and will increase or decrease as they increase or decrease in value. Most mutual fund shares are bought or sold at prices based on the values of their holdings of stocks and/or bonds at the close of the financial markets for the day. You usually buy or sell mutual fund shares by directly contacting the company that manages the fund.

Mutual funds can be index funds or actively managed funds. Index funds invest in a way that copies, or mimics, a financial market index, like the Standard & Poor’s 500 or the Nasdaq 100. Index funds have low costs and fees because they don’t have to pay professional money managers to strategize for them. Actively managed funds hire professional money managers to select stocks and/or bonds for them to invest in. These funds have higher costs and fees, because the professionals have to be paid to do the investment strategizing. Some actively managed funds are quite successful. But most do no better, or even worse, than index funds. An investor who is just starting out has relatively little, or nothing, to gain by investing in an actively managed mutual fund,

An exchange traded fund (ETF) is a special kind of mutual fund that can be bought or sold during the hours the stock market is open, at a price that normally reflects the most recent prices for its holdings of stocks and/or bonds. ETFs are bought or sold through stockbrokers.

5. The stock market and bond market are the principal financial markets for investors. They are open for normal trading from 9:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., East Coast Time. You can buy or sell stocks, bonds or exchange traded funds during these times. It is possible to buy or sell some U.S. stocks and bonds in other markets at other times. But the prices you get may be less favorable.

6. Stockbrokers are people and firms that serve as intermediaries in the process of buying and selling stocks. You can’t personally call or e-mail a stock market to buy or sell. You have to go through a stockbroker. (However, you can directly invest in or sell mutual funds--except ETFs--by contacting the company that manages the fund.) Stockbrokers charge commissions and/or other fees for their services.

7. Risks. You’ll probably have very little trouble getting information about the potential rewards offered by investments. You’ll probably have a harder time getting information about the risks (because people selling you investments tend not to emphasize their bad points). However, risk and reward walk hand-in-hand down Wall Street. The greater the potential reward, the greater the risk of loss. If you’re getting a glowing story about how great an investment is, but very little detail about the risk of loss, you will be at an informational disadvantage. You might be tempted to invest because you don’t know how bad the investment could be. Go back to cigarette ads from the early 1960’s. They’ll tell you that it’s enjoyable and sophisticated to smoke. But they’re rather short on information about heart disease, cancer and emphysema. Makes it tempting to light up—and that’s the idea. Make sure you know how an investment can go wrong before investing.

8. Investment Strategies. There are about eight and one-half zillion investment strategies. The large majority of them are (a) inconsequential (i.e., they won’t give you much of an advantage, or any, in the long term), (b) expensive (i.e., they require you to buy and sell investments often, which means large transaction costs that can significantly reduce your returns), (c) bunk (i.e., stupid, also referred to as dumb), or (d) fraudulent (i.e., a way to steal your money). Are there investment strategies that will prove superior in the future? Possibly, but you’ll have a hard time separating them from (a) through (d) above. Most professional money managers do not get returns higher than the stock markets as a whole and some do worse. That’s why investing for a return around stock market averages is a rational strategy. In general, most investors should stick to a simple strategy of investing on a diversified basis for the long term. See our recent blog on why the investor who does average is likely to do well.

New World Hot Dog Eating Record: You've been waiting for this.

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