While most folks today trust mutual funds and their professional managers with their investments, its still important to understand the basics of the stock market. Although investing in individual stocks may not be right for everyone, a basic understanding of the stock market is essential to understanding the workings of our economy and business sector.
A stock is a portion of ownership in a company. Commonly referred to as a share, it is a small percentage of the total ownership pool for the corporation. Shareholders are stock owners, or people who have an ownership interest in the corporation. Today, shares are usually tracked electronically, but in previous decades shareholders would actually receive a certificate stating their ownership.
Why own stocks? First, you are sharing in the companys profits. When a corporation shows a profit, they will sometimes distribute these profits to each shareholder, based on how much stock they own. This distribution is called a dividend. Companys can elect to pay out their profits or reinvest them in the company, but as a shareholder, each time a payout is made you will receive your proportionate share.
Also, the value of your stock will rise and fall based on the companys perceived value in the stock market. If you buy a share at $10.00 and it rises to $11.00 a share, youve made a dollar for each share you own, and subsequently sell. However, with this opportunity comes risk as well. If the share price falls and you sell, youll lose money. The more volatile the stock, the more opportunity for risk or profit.
Most shareholders track their stocks using the stock table. These appear confusing and difficult to read, but they are actually easy to understand with a little practice.
Ticker symbol is listed first. This is the abbreviated symbol that the stock market uses to identify your company. For example, GE is General Electric, WMT is Walmart. Once you select a company, youll need to know its shorthand name to track its progress.
Second, the companys name may be listed. Some tables omit the name to save space, others list it to make tracking stocks easier.
The third item is the number of sales in the last trading day. This is listed in the 100,000s, so 256 means 256,000 shares were bought and sold on the last day that the market was open.
Next are the high and low price, in that order. The high price is the highest per share price that the stock sold for on the previous trading day. The low price is the lowest price for that day. Since the price of the shares moves all day long, this is a good reference to see how much the stock is changing in a day.
Next, the closing price is listed. This is the last price that the stock traded for as the market closed. This will also be the beginning price for the next trading day.
After the closing price, the table will list the change, or the amount that the stock changed when you compare yesterdays closing price with the closing price for the day before. This will be listed as a positive number (the stock went up) or a negative number (the stock sold for less yesterday than the day before).
Stock tables are found in many places, but most people check their daily paper or the Wall Street Journal. There are many internet sites that track stocks as well.
Of course, youll have to select a stock. Choose carefully or consult a professional, and good luck!