Market Talk

Stocks

What Is a Stock?

A stock (also known as equity) is a security that represents the ownership of a fraction of a corporation. This entitles the owner of the stock to a proportion of the corporation’s assets and profits equal to how much stock they own. Units of stock are called “shares.”

Stocks are bought and sold predominantly on stock exchanges, though there can be private sales as well, and are the foundation of many individual investors’ portfolios. These transactions have to conform to government regulations which are meant to protect investors from fraudulent practices. Historically, they have outperformed most other investments over the long run. These investments can be purchased from most online stock brokers.

Understanding Stocks

Corporations issue (sell) stock to raise funds to operate their businesses. The holder of stock (a shareholder) has now bought a piece of the corporation and, depending on the type of shares held, may have a claim to a part of its assets and earnings. In other words, a shareholder is now an owner of the issuing company. Ownership is determined by the number of shares a person owns relative to the number of outstanding shares. For example, if a company has 1,000 shares of stock outstanding and one person owns 100 shares, that person would own and have claim to 10% of the company’s assets and earnings.

Stock holders do not own corporations; they own shares issued by corporations. But corporations are a special type of organization because the law treats them as legal persons. In other words, corporations file taxes, can borrow, can own property, can be sued, etc. The idea that a corporation is a “person” means that the corporation owns its own assets. A corporate office full of chairs and tables belongs to the corporation, and not to the shareholders.

This distinction is important because corporate property is legally separated from the property of shareholders, which limits the liability of both the corporation and the shareholder. If the corporation goes bankrupt, a judge may order all of its assets sold – but your personal assets are not at risk. The court cannot even force you to sell your shares, although the value of your shares will have fallen drastically. Likewise, if a major shareholder goes bankrupt, he/she cannot sell the company’s assets to pay off his/her creditors.

How Share Prices Are Set

The prices of shares on a stock market can be set in a number of ways, but most the most common way is through an auction process where buyers and sellers place bids and offers to buy or sell. A bid is the price at which somebody wishes to buy, and an offer (or ask) is the price at which somebody wishes to sell. When the bid and ask coincide, a trade is made.

The overall market is made up of millions of investors and traders, who may have differing ideas about the value of a specific stock and thus the price at which they are willing to buy or sell it. The thousands of transactions that occur as these investors and traders convert their intentions to actions by buying and/or selling a stock cause minute-by-minute gyrations in it over the course of a trading day. A stock exchange provides a platform where such trading can be easily conducted by matching buyers and sellers of stocks. For the average person to get access to these exchanges, they would need a stockbroker. This stockbroker acts as the middleman between the buyer and the seller. Getting a stockbroker is most commonly accomplished by creating an account with a well established retail broker.

Stock Market Supply and Demand

The stock market also offers a fascinating example of the laws of supply and demand at work in real time. For every stock transaction, there must be a buyer and a seller. Because of the immutable laws of supply and demand, if there are more buyers for a specific stock than there are sellers of it, the stock price will trend up. Conversely, if there are more sellers of the stock than buyers, the price will trend down.

The bid-ask or bid-offer spread—the difference between the bid price for a stock and its ask or offer price—represents the difference between the highest price that a buyer is willing to pay or bid for a stock and the lowest price at which a seller is offering the stock. A trade transaction occurs either when a buyer accepts the ask price or a seller takes the bid price. If buyers outnumber sellers, they may be willing to raise their bids in order to acquire the stock; sellers will, therefore, ask higher prices for it, ratcheting the price up. If sellers outnumber buyers, they may be willing to accept lower offers for the stock, while buyers will also lower their bids, effectively forcing the price down.

Investing in Stocks

Numerous studies have shown that, over long periods of time, stocks generate investment returns that are superior to those from every other asset class. Stock returns arise from capital gains and dividends. A capital gain occurs when you sell a stock at a higher price than the price at which you purchased it. A dividend is the share of profit that a company distributes to its shareholders. Dividends are an important component of stock returns—since 1956, dividends have contributed nearly one-third of total equity return, while capital gains have contributed two-thirds.

While the allure of buying a stock similar to one of the fabled FAANG quintet—Facebook, Apple Inc. (AAPL), Amazon.com Inc. (AMZN), Netflix Inc. (NFLX), and Google parent Alphabet Inc. (GOOGL)—at a very early stage is one of the more tantalizing prospects of stock investing, in reality, such home runs are few and far between. Investors who want to swing for the fences with the stocks in their portfolios should have a higher tolerance for risk; such investors will be keen to generate most of their returns from capital gains rather than dividends. On the other hand, investors who are conservative and need the income from their portfolios may opt for stocks that have a long history of paying substantial dividends.

Market Cap and Sector

While stocks can be classified in a number of ways, two of the most common are by market capitalization and by sector.

Market capitalization refers to the total market value of a company’s outstanding shares and is calculated by multiplying these shares by the current market price of one share. While the exact definition may vary depending on the market, large-cap companies are generally regarded as those with a market capitalization of $10 billion or more, while mid-cap companies are those with a market capitalization of between $2 billion and $10 billion, and small-cap companies fall between $300 million and $2 billion.

The industry standard for stock classification by sector is the Global Industry Classification Standard (GICS), which was developed by MSCI and S&P Dow Jones Indices in 1999 as an efficient tool to capture the breadth, depth, and evolution of industry sectors. GICS is a four-tiered industry classification system that consists of 11 sectors and 24 industry groups. The 11 sectors are:

  • Energy
  • Materials
  • Industrials
  • Consumer Discretionary
  • Consumer Staples
  • Health Care
  • Financials
  • Information Technology
  • Communication Services
  • Utilities
  • Real Estate

This sector classification makes it easy for investors to tailor their portfolios according to their risk tolerance and investment preference. For example, conservative investors with income needs may weight their portfolios toward sectors whose constituent stocks have better price stability and offer attractive dividends – so-called “defensive” sectors such as consumer staples, health care, and utilities. Aggressive investors may prefer more volatile sectors such as information technology, financials, and energy.

Stock Market Indices

In addition to individual stocks, many investors are concerned with stock indices (also called indexes). Indices represent aggregated prices of a number of different stocks, and the movement of an index is the net effect of the movements of each individual component. When people talk about the stock market, they often are actually referring to one of the major indices such as the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) or the S&P 500.

The DJIA is a price-weighted index of 30 large American corporations. Because of its weighting scheme and that it only consists of 30 stocks—when there are many thousand to choose from—it is not really a good indicator of how the stock market is doing. The S&P 500 is a market cap-weighted index of the 500 largest companies in the U.S., and is a much more valid indicator. Indices can be broad such as the Dow Jones or S&P 500, or they can be specific to a certain industry or market sector. Investors can trade indices indirectly via futures markets, or via exchange traded funds (ETFs), which trade like stocks on stock exchanges.

market index is a popular measure of stock market performance. Most market indices are market-cap weighted—which means that the weight of each index constituent is proportional to its market capitalization—although a few like the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) are price-weighted. In addition to the DJIA, other widely watched indices in the U.S. and internationally include:

  • S&P 500
  • Nasdaq Composite
  • Russell Indices (Russell 1000, Russell 2000)
  • TSX Composite (Canada)
  • FTSE Index (UK)
  • Nikkei 225 (Japan)
  • Dax Index (Germany)
  • CAC 40 Index (France)
  • CSI 300 Index (China)
  • Sensex (India)

Largest Stock Exchanges

Stock exchanges have been around for more than two centuries. The venerable NYSE traces its roots back to 1792 when two dozen brokers met in Lower Manhattan and signed an agreement to trade securities on commission; in 1817, New York stockbrokers operating under the agreement made some key changes and reorganized as the New York Stock and Exchange Board.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • A stock is a form of security that indicates the holder has proportionate ownership in the issuing corporation.
  • Corporations issue (sell) stock to raise funds to operate their businesses. There are two main types of stock: common and preferred.
  • Stocks are bought and sold predominantly on stock exchanges, though there can be private sales as well, and they are the foundation of nearly every portfolio.
  • Historically, they have outperformed most other investments over the long run.

Options

What Is Stock Options Trading?

Trading options is very different from trading stocks because options have distinct characteristics from stocks. Investors need to take the time to understand the terminology and concepts involved with options before trading them.

Options are financial derivatives, meaning that they derive their value from the underlying security or stock. Options give the buyer the right, but not the obligation, to buy or sell the underlying stock at a pre-determined price.

Understanding Stock Options Trading

Trading options is more like betting on horses at the racetrack: Each person bets against all the other people there. The track simply takes a small cut for providing the facilities. So trading options, like betting at the horse track, is a zero-sum game. The option buyer’s gain is the option seller’s loss and vice versa.

One important difference between stocks and options is that stocks give you a small piece of ownership in a company, while options are just contracts that give you the right to buy or sell the stock at a specific price by a specific date.

It’s important to remember that there are always two sides to every option transaction: a buyer and a seller. In other words, for every option purchased, there’s always someone else selling it.

Types of Options

The two types of options are calls and puts. When you buy a call option, you have the right, but not the obligation, to purchase a stock at a set price, called the strike price, any time before the option expires. When you buy a put option, you have the right, but not the obligation, to sell a stock at the strike price any time before the expiration date.

When individuals sell options, they effectively create a security that didn’t exist before. This is known as writing an option, and it explains one of the main sources of options since neither the associated company nor the options exchange issues the options.

When you write a call, you may be obligated to sell shares at the strike price any time before the expiration date. When you write a put, you may be obligated to buy shares at the strike price any time before expiration.

There are also two basic styles of options: American and European. An American-style option can be exercised at any time between the date of purchase and the expiration date. A European-style option can only be exercised on the expiration date. Most exchange-traded options are American style, and all stock options are American style. Many index options are European style.

Option Pricing

The price of an option is called the premium. The buyer of an option can’t lose more than the initial premium paid for the contract, no matter what happens to the underlying security. So the risk to the buyer is never more than the amount paid for the option. The profit potential, on the other hand, is theoretically unlimited.

In return for the premium received from the buyer, the seller of an option assumes the risk of having to deliver (if a call option) or taking delivery (if a put option) of the shares of the stock. Unless that option is covered by another option or a position in the underlying stock, the seller’s loss can be open-ended, meaning the seller can lose much more than the original premium received.

Please note that options are not available at just any price. Stock options are generally traded with strike prices in intervals of $0.50 or $1, but can also be in intervals of $2.50 and $5 for higher-priced stocks. Also, only strike prices within a reasonable range around the current stock price are generally traded. Far in- or out-of-the-money options might not be available.

Option Profitability

When the strike price of a call option is above the current price of the stock, the call is not profitable or out-of-the-money. In other words, an investor is not going to buy a stock at a higher price (the strike) than the current market price of the stock. When the call option strike price is below the stock’s price, it’s considered in-the-money since the investor can buy the stock for a lower price than in the current market.

Put options are the exact opposite. They’re considered out-of-the-money when the strike price is below the stock price since an investor wouldn’t sell the stock at a lower price (the strike) than in the market. Put options are in the money when the strike price is above the stock price since investors can sell the stock at a higher (strike) price than the market price of the stock.

Expiration Dates

All stock options expire on a certain date, called the expiration date. For normal listed options, this can be up to nine months from the date the options are first listed for trading. Longer-term option contracts, called long-term equity anticipation securities (LEAPS), are also available on many stocks. These can have expiration dates up to three years from the listing date.

Options expire at market close on Friday, unless it falls on a market holiday, in which case expiration is moved back one business day. Monthly options expire on the third Friday of the expiration month, while weekly options expire on each of the other Fridays in a month. Unlike shares of stock, which have a two-day settlement period, options settle the next day. To settle on the expiration date, you have to exercise or trade the option by the end of the day on Friday.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • Options give a buyer the right, but not the obligation, to buy (call) or sell (put) the underlying stock at a pre-set price called the strike price.
  • Options have a cost associated with them, called a premium, and expiration date.
  • A call option is profitable when the strike price is below the stock’s market price since the trader can buy the stock at a lower price.
  • A put option is profitable when the strike is higher than the stock’s market price since the trader can sell the stock at a higher price.

Forex

What is Forex (FX)?

Forex (FX) refers to the global electronic marketplace for trading international currencies and currency derivatives. It has no central physical location, yet the forex market is the largest, most liquid market in the world by trading volume, with trillions of dollars changing hands every day. Most of the trading is done through banks, brokers, and financial institutions.

The forex market is open 24 hours a day, five days a week, except for holidays. The forex market is open on many holidays on which stock markets are closed, though the trading volume may be lower.

Its name, forex, is a portmanteau of foreign and exchange. It’s often abbreviated as fx.

Understanding Forex

Forex exists so that large amounts of one currency can be exchanged for the equivalent value in another currency at the current market rate.

Some of these trades occur because financial institutions, companies, or individuals have a business need to exchange one currency for another. For example, an American company may trade U.S. dollars for Japanese yen in order to pay for merchandise that has been ordered from Japan and is payable in yen.

A great deal of forex trade exists to accommodate speculation on the direction of currency values. Traders profit from the price movement of a particular pair of currencies.

Forex Pairs and Quotes

Currencies being traded are listed in pairs, such as USD/CAD, EUR/USD, or USD/JPY. These represent the U.S. dollar (USD) versus the Canadian dollar (CAD), the Euro (EUR) versus the USD, and the USD versus the Japanese Yen (JPY).

There will also be a price associated with each pair, such as 1.2569. If this price was associated with the USD/CAD pair it means that it costs 1.2569 CAD to buy one USD. If the price increases to 1.3336, it now costs 1.3336 CAD to buy one USD. The USD has increased in value (the CAD has decreased) as it now costs more CAD to buy one USD.

Forex Lots

In the forex market, currencies trade in lots called micro, mini, and standard lots. A micro lot is 1,000 units of a given currency, a mini lot is 10,000, and a standard lot is 100,000.

This is obviously exchanging money on a larger scale than going to a bank to exchange $500 to take on a trip. When trading in the electronic forex market, trades take place in blocks of currency, and they can be traded in any volume desired, within the limits allowed by the individual trading account balance. For example, you can trade seven micro lots (7,000) or three mini lots (30,000), or 75 standard lots (7,500,000).

How Large Is the Forex?

The forex market is unique for several reasons, the main one being its size. Trading volume is generally very large. As an example, trading in foreign exchange markets averaged $6.6 trillion per day in 2019, according to the Bank for International Settlements (BIS). This exceeds global equities (stocks) trading volumes by roughly 25 times.

The largest foreign exchange markets are located in major global financial centers including London, New York, Singapore, Tokyo, Frankfurt, Hong Kong, and Sydney.

How to Trade in Forex

The forex market is open 24 hours a day, five days a week, in major financial centers across the globe. This means that you can buy or sell currencies at virtually any hour. 

In the past, forex trading was largely limited to governments, large companies, and hedge funds. Now, anyone can trade on forex. Many investment firms, banks, and retail brokers allow individuals to open accounts and trade currencies. 

When trading in the forex market, you’re buying or selling the currency of a particular country, relative to another currency. But there’s no physical exchange of money from one party to another as at a foreign exchange kiosk.

In the world of electronic markets, traders are usually taking a position in a specific currency with the hope that there will be some upward movement and strength in the currency they’re buying (or weakness if they’re selling) so that they can make a profit. 

A currency is always traded relative to another currency. If you sell a currency, you are buying another, and if you buy a currency you are selling another. The profit is made on the difference between your transaction prices.

Forex (FX) Rollover

Retail traders don’t typically want to take delivery of the currencies they buy. They are only interested in profiting on the difference between their transaction prices. Because of this, most retail brokers will automatically “roll over” their currency positions at 5 p.m. EST each day.

The broker basically resets the positions and provides either a credit or debit for the interest rate differential between the two currencies in the pairs being held. The trade carries on and the trader doesn’t need to deliver or settle the transaction. When the trade is closed the trader realizes a profit or loss based on the original transaction price and the price at which the trade was closed. The rollover credits or debits could either add to this gain or detract from it.

Since the forex market is closed on Saturday and Sunday, the interest rate credit or debit from these days is applied on Wednesday. Therefore, holding a position at 5 p.m. on Wednesday will result in being credited or debited triple the usual amount.

Leverage

The forex market allows for leverage up to 50:1 in the U.S. and even higher in some parts of the world. That means a trader can open an account for $1,000 and buy or sell as much as $50,000 in currency. Leverage is a double-edged sword; it magnifies both profits and losses.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • Forex (FX) market is a global electronic network for currency trading.
  • Formerly limited to governments and financial institutions, individuals can now directly buy and sell currencies on forex.
  • In the forex market, a profit or loss results from the difference in the price at which the trader bought and sold a currency pair.
  • Currency traders do not deal in cash. Brokers generally roll over their positions at the end of each day.

Futures

What Are Futures?

Futures are derivative financial contracts that obligate the parties to transact an asset at a predetermined future date and price. The buyer must purchase or the seller must sell the underlying asset at the set price, regardless of the current market price at the expiration.

Underlying assets include physical commodities or other financial instruments. Futures contracts detail the quantity of the underlying asset and are standardized to facilitate trading on a futures exchange. Futures can be used for hedging or trade speculation.

Understanding Futures

Futures—also called futures contracts—allow traders to lock in the price of the underlying asset or commodity. These contracts have expiration dates and set prices that are known upfront. Futures are identified by their expiration month. For example, a December gold futures contract expires in December.

Traders and investors use the term “futures” in reference to the overall asset class. However, there are many types of futures contracts available for trading including:

  • Commodity futures such as crude oil, natural gas, corn, and wheat
  • Stock index futures such as the S&P 500 Index
  • Currency futures including those for the euro and the British pound
  • Precious metal futures for gold and silver
  • U.S. Treasury futures for bonds and other products

It’s important to note the distinction between options and futures. American-style options contracts give the holder the right (but not the obligation) to buy or sell the underlying asset any time before the expiration date of the contract; with European options you can only exercise at expiration but do not have to exercise that right.

The buyer of a futures contract, on the other hand, is obligated to take possession of the underlying commodity (or the cash equivalent) at the time of expiration and not any time before. The buyer of a futures contract can sell their position at any time before expiration and be free of their obligation. In this way, buyers of both options and futures contracts benefit from a leverage holder’s position closing before the expiration date.

Pros

  • Investors can use futures contracts to speculate on the direction in the price of an underlying asset.
  • Companies can hedge the price of their raw materials or products they sell to protect from adverse price movements.
  • Futures contracts may only require a deposit of a fraction of the contract amount with a broker.

Cons

  • Investors have a risk that they can lose more than the initial margin amount since futures use leverage.
  • Investing in a futures contract might cause a company that hedged to miss out on favorable price movements.
  • Margin can be a double-edged sword, meaning gains are amplified but so too are losses.

Futures Speculation

A futures contract allows a trader to speculate on the direction of movement of a commodity’s price. If a trader bought a futures contract and the price of the commodity rose and was trading above the original contract price at expiration, then they would have a profit. Before expiration, the buy trade—the long position—would be offset or unwound with a sell trade for the same amount at the current price, effectively closing the long position.

The difference between the prices of the two contracts would be cash-settled in the investor’s brokerage account, and no physical product will change hands. However, the trader could also lose if the commodity’s price was lower than the purchase price specified in the futures contract.

Futures Hedging

Futures can be used to hedge the price movement of the underlying asset. Here, the goal is to prevent losses from potentially unfavorable price changes rather than to speculate. Many companies that enter hedges are using—or in many cases producing—the underlying asset.

For example, corn farmers can use futures to lock in a specific price for selling their corn crop. By doing so, they reduce their risk and guarantee they will receive the fixed price. If the price of corn decreased, the farmer would have a gain on the hedge to offset losses from selling the corn at the market. With such a gain and loss offsetting each other, the hedging effectively locks in an acceptable market price.

Regulation of Futures

The futures markets are regulated by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC). The CFTC is a federal agency created by Congress in 1974 to ensure the integrity of futures market pricing, including preventing abusive trading practices, fraud, and regulating brokerage firms engaged in futures trading.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • Futures are derivative financial contracts obligating the buyer to purchase an asset or the seller to sell an asset at a predetermined future date and set price.
  • A futures contract allows an investor to speculate on the direction of a security, commodity, or financial instrument.
  • Futures are used to hedge the price movement of the underlying asset to help prevent losses from unfavorable price changes.

The Bottom Line

Understanding a futures price quote takes some practice. There is a lot of information and a lot of different contracts. One of the trickier things to get used to is the ticker symbol coding. Since contracts expire, ticker symbols contain the contract symbol as well as the month and year of expiry. When trading futures, make sure you are trading the contract you want, paying special attention to the monthly code.