Stock: An Introduction
Many investors never venture beyond the world of cash alternatives--bank accounts, CDs, money market accounts, and Treasury bills.
What are stocks?
Stock equals ownership
A stock represents a share of ownership in a business. When you hold one or more shares of stock in a company, you actually own a piece of that company. Your percentage of ownership will depend on how many shares you hold in relation to the total number of shares issued by the company.
Investors who purchase stock are known as the company's stockholders or shareholders. The price of shares reflects the public's level of interest in owning the shares. If a lot of investors want to buy shares, they bid against one another, driving up the market price of the stock. If interest is low, competing bids are few and far between, and the price of shares is likely to fall.
Stock ownership can give you a share of profits and other perks
Your percentage of ownership in a company represents your share of the risks taken and profits generated by the company. If the company does well, your share of the total earnings will be proportionate to how much of the company's stock you own. The flip side, of course, is that your share of any loss will be similarly proportionate to your percentage of ownership, though you are not personally financially responsible for any share of the liabilities of the company in which you hold an equity interest.
Beyond that, depending on the company and the types of shares you have, stock ownership may carry other benefits. Specifically, you may be entitled to dividend payments (which you can generally receive either in cash or additional shares), capital gains payouts, voting rights, and other corporate privileges. For example, common stockholders have the right to vote for candidates for the board of directors and on other important issues.
Why invest in stocks?
Many investors never venture beyond the world of cash alternatives--bank accounts, CDs, money market accounts, and Treasury bills. They take comfort in knowing that these investment vehicles provide maximum safety coupled with liquidity that allows them to access their money easily if they need it. However, while these investments are relatively low risk, they generally yield minimal returns; some may not even keep pace with inflation. At some point, most investors want the potential for greater returns, which is where stocks enter the picture.
A variety of factors motivate people to invest in stocks. Many view equity investments as an opportunity to accumulate wealth or to prevent inflation from eventually reducing the purchasing power of their money. They generally take a long-term view, hoping their stocks will appreciate in value over time. They may also be interested in the dividends that some stocks pay, which shareholders may accept in cash or (in some cases) reinvest in additional shares of the company. Dividends and any increases or drops in the stock's price combine to produce the stock's total return. Investors with a gambler mentality may be attracted by the thrill of playing the market. They may trade actively, sometimes buying and selling the same issue within a few days or a few hours. These day traders try to take advantage of small, intra-day price movements in volatile stocks or indexes.