Stock is an equity investment. If you buy stock in a corporation, you own a small part of that corporation and are described as a stockholder or shareholder.

You buy a stock because you expect it to increase in value. Or because you expect the corporation to pay you dividend income, or a portion of its profits.

In fact, many stocks provide both growth and income. When a corporation issues stock, the company receives the proceeds from that initial sale. After that, shares of the stock are traded, or bought and sold among investors, but the corporation gets no income from those trades.

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The price of the stock moves up or down depending on supply and demand — or how many shareholders want to sell and how eager investors are to buy. Increased supply drives prices down. Increased demand drives prices up.

Common stock

Most stock issued in the United States is common stock. Owning it entitles you to collect dividends if the company pays them, and you can sell shares at a profit if the price increases. But stock prices change all the time, so your shares could lose value, especially in the short term. Some common stocks are volatile, which means their prices may increase or decrease rapidly.

Despite the risk, investors have been willing to buy common stock because over time stocks in general — though not each individual stock — have provided stronger returns, or price increases plus dividends, than other securities.

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Preferred stock

Some companies issue preferred stock in addition to common stock. These equity investments, which also trade in the secondary market, are listed separately from the company’s common stock and trade at a different price. Preferred stock dividends are paid before common stock dividends, and preferred shareholders are more likely to recover some of their investment if the company fails. And, in some cases, preferred stock can be converted to common stock at a preset price.

THE RIGHT TO VOTE

As a stockholder, you have the right to vote yes, no, or abstain on a company’s policy proposals and shareholder proposals, and to vote for or against nominees to its board of directors. You can vote in person at the annual meeting, by proxy online, over the phone, or by mail, or authorize your broker or financial adviser to vote on your behalf.

Before the annual meeting you’ll receive a proxy statement that reports on the company’s performance and the compensation of the five highest paid executives, introduces the nominees, and makes recommendations on the proposals.

The prices of preferred stock tend to change less than the prices of common stock over time, and the dividends typically aren’t increased if the company’s earnings increase. These characteristics help explain why preferred shares are sometimes described as hybrid investments—a combination of fixed income and equity.

CLASSES OF STOCK

Companies may issue different classes of stock, label them differently and list them separately on a stock market. Sometimes a class indicates ownership in a specific division or subsidiary of the company. Other times it indicates shares that sell at different market prices, have different dividend policies, provide greater voting rights, or impose sales restrictions on ownership.

Stock splits

When the price of a stock increases significantly, you and other investors may be reluctant to buy, either because you think the price has reached its peak or because it costs so much. Corporations have the option of splitting the stock to lower the price, which they expect to stimulate trading. When a stock is split, there are more shares available, but the total market value is the same.
stock split
Say a company’s stock is trading at $100 a share. If the company declares a two-for-one split, it gives you a second share for each one you own. At the same time the price drops to $50 a share. If you owned 300 shares selling at $100 you now have 600 selling at $50—but the value is still $30,000. The initial effect of a stock split is no different from getting coins in exchange for a dollar bill. But the price may move up toward the presplit price, increasing the value of your stock. Stocks can split three for one, three for two, ten for one, or any other combination.

REVERSE SPLITS

In a reverse split a corporation exchanges more shares for fewer — say ten shares for five — and the price increases accordingly. Typically the motive is to boost the price so that it meets a stock market’s minimum listing requirement or makes the stock attractive to institutional investors, including mutual funds and pension funds, which may not buy very low priced stocks.

BLUE CHIP

is a term borrowed from poker, where the blue chips are the most valuable. Blue chips refer to the stocks of the largest, most consistently profitable corporations. The list isn’t official — and it does change.

Buying and selling stock

The process of buying and selling stock has its own rules, its own language, and a special cast of characters. As an individual investor — sometimes called a retail investor — you buy and sell stocks for your portfolio through a brokerage firm where you have an account. The firm sends, or routes, your orders for execution, and reports back to you when the trade has been completed.

If you’re buying, the purchase price is debited from your account—or you transfer payment from your bank—and your new shares are credited. If you’re selling, the reverse occurs. The shares are debited and payment is credited. The transaction and the clearance and settlement process that transfers ownership are, almost always, handled electronically. The price you pay or receive depends on the size of your order and the activity in the market.

Regulation NMS — for National Market System — requires your firm to seek what’s called best execution by sending your order to the trading site with the best price or executing it at a higher price, known as price improvement. Institutional investors, including mutual funds, pension funds, hedge funds, insurance companies, and money managers, are more active in the stock market than individual investors.

CUSIP IDENTIFIERS

Every security in the United States is assigned a unique nine-character CUSIP identifier that encodes the name of the issuer and the specific issue. Using these identifiers means that broker-dealers communicate orders clearly, trades are handled accurately and efficiently, and dividends and interest are paid on time to the right owner. Unless its issuer has a major structural change, an issuer’s CUSIP remains the same as long as it’s in the market.

They trade more often and in greater volume, typically a minimum of 10,000 shares in one transaction and often more. Together, these investors hold about 70% of all publicly traded US stocks, and a higher percentage in the biggest companies. You may have a stake in the investment decisions these institutions make indirectly in the case of stock mutual funds you own—or directly in the case of managed accounts, where you own shares an investment manager has chosen. Or you may benefit from the value that stocks add to institutional portfolios — for example, if you have a pension or  life insurance policy or if you receive an academic scholarship from a university endowment.

The stock market players

The brokerage firm where you have an account is known as a broker-dealer (BD). BDs—with a few exceptions— must register with the SEC by completing Form BD, which is filed with the Central Registration Depository (CRD). You have access to the information the firm provides through FINRA or your state securities regulator.

A registered BD must be a member of a self-regulatory organization (SRO) and the Securities Investor Protection Corporation (SIPC). SIPC insures a firm’s customer accounts up to $500,000 in the event of bankruptcy or other firm failures, though not for investment losses. Brokers act as agents, buying and selling securities for the firm’s clients. Some brokers have only retail clients, some have only institutional, and some work with both. Stockbrokers — officially known as registered representatives — must register with FINRA and pass a qualifying examination, typically a Series 7.

Assistant representatives who take unsolicited buy and sell orders must also be licensed. Dealers act as principals rather than agents, buying and selling securities for the firm’s account rather than on a client’s behalf. Among other things, dealers may regularly buy and sell a particular security or securities, which is called making a market in the security. In contrast, registered traders, also called competitive traders, buy and sell securities for their own portfolios. Certain employees who handle a firm’s securities trading are also known as traders.

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Stock market orders

Because you act through an intermediary—your broker—to buy and sell stocks, you give an order to initiate a trade. Most individual investors use four order types.
  1.  A market order instructs your broker to buy or sell at the current price, whatever that is at the time the order is executed. The risk, of course, is that you will pay more or receive less than you expect.
  2.  A limit order means the trade should occur at a specific price, called the limit price, which is higher or lower than the current price. This lets you choose the point at which you believe the trade is appropriately priced. So, you won’t pay more or receive less than you wish. The risk is that in a fast market, where prices change quickly, your order may never be acted on.
  3.  A stop order means the trade will take place when the stock hits the stop price. You typically use stop orders to limit potential losses or protect profits, in both cases when the current price seems likely to fall. The risk is that a stop order becomes a market order when the stop price is reached, and the actual sales price could be less than you hoped.
  4.  A combined stop-limit order tells your broker to sell when the stock hits the stop price but not for less than the limit price. Contingent orders, such as one-cancels-all or one-triggers-all, are linked orders to be executed only under specific market conditions.

WHERE THE COMMISSION GOES

A commission you pay to buy and sell stocks is divided—by prearranged contract—between your broker and the brokerage firm. Commissions and any additional fees are set by the firm, but your broker may be able to give you a break if you trade often and in large volume. Generally, the higher the commission rate the firm charges, the more room there is for negotiation.

INSTITUTIONAL ORDERS

Institutional investors use many more order types. The New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) lists 30 for its traditional exchange and more than 50 on its electronic platform, NYSE Arca. Many order types are opaque, and some have been criticized as providing undue advantage to certain investors.

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