What You Need to Know About Stocks

Stocks are a common choice for many investors.  There are two types of stocks – preferred and common.  Because most investors buy common stocks, they will be the subject of this post.  I’ll talk about what you need to know about stocks before you buy them, including:

  • Stocks and how they work.
  • The price you will pay.
  • The risks of owning stocks.
  • Approaches people use for selecting stocks.
  • How stock are taxed.
  • When you might consider buying stocks.
  • How to buy a stock.

What are Stocks?

Stocks are ownership interests in companies.  They are sometimes called equities or shares.  When you buy a stock, you receive a certificate that indicates the number of shares you own.  If you buy your investments through a brokerage firm, it will hold your certificates for you.  If you buy them directly, you will usually receive the certificate (and will want to maintain it in an extremely safe place as it is your only proof that you own the stock).  Some companies track their stock’s owners electronically, so you may not always get a physical certificate.

How Do Stocks Work?

Companies sell stock as a way to raise money.  The company receives the amount paid for the shares of stock when they are issued, minus a fee paid to the investment banker that assists with the sale.  The process of issuing stock is called a public offering.  The first time a company offers its shares to the public, it is called an initial public offering (IPO).

Stockholder-Company Interactions

After the stock has been sold by the company, the stockholder has the following interactions with the company:

  • It receives any dividends paid by the company.
  • It gets to vote on matters brought before shareholders at least annually.  These issues include election of directors, advisory input on executive compensation, selection of auditors and other matters.
  • It has the option to sell the stock back to the company if the company decides to repurchase some of its stock.

In addition to these benefits of owning stock, you also can sell it at the then-current market price at any time.

Why Companies Care About Their Stock Prices

Interestingly, after the stock has been sold by the company, future sales of the stock do not impact the finances of the company other than its impact on executive compensation.  That is, if you buy stock in a company other than when it is issued, you pay for the stock and the proceeds go to the seller (who isn’t the company)!

You might wonder, then, why a company might care about its stock price.  That’s where executive compensation comes in!  Many directors and senior executives at publicly traded companies have a portion of their compensation either paid in stock or determined based on the price of the company’s stock.  When the leadership owns a lot of stock or is paid based on the stock price, it has a strong incentive to act in a way that will increase the price of the stock.  As such, with appropriate incentive compensation for directors and executives, their interests are more closely aligned with yours (i.e., you both want the price of the company’s stock to go up).

What Price Will I Pay?

The price you will pay for a stock is the amount that the person selling the stock is willing to take in payment.  Finance theory asserts that the price of a stock should be the present value of the cash flows you will receive as the owner of a stock.

In my post on bonds, I explain present values.  They apply fairly easily to the price of a bond, as the cash flows to the owner of a bond are fairly clear – the coupons or interest payments and the return of the principal on a known date.

By comparison, the cash flows to the owner of a stock are much more uncertain.  There are two types of cash flows to the owner of a stock – dividends and the money you receive when you sell the stock.

Dividends

Dividends are amounts paid by the company to stockholders.  Many companies pay dividends every quarter or every year.  In most cases, the amount of these dividends stay fairly constant or increase a little bit every year.  The company, though, is under no obligation to pay dividends and can decide at any time to stop paying them.  As such, while many people assume that dividends will continue to be paid, there is more uncertainty in whether they will be paid than there is with bond interest.

Proceeds from the Sale of the Stock

The owner of the stock will receive an amount equal to the number of shares sold times the price per share at the time of sale.  This cash flow has two components of uncertainty to it.

  1. You don’t know when you will sell it. You therefore don’t know for how long you need to discount this cash flow to calculate the present value.
  2. It is impossible to predict the price of a stock in the future.

What are the Risks?

The biggest risk of buying a stock is that its value could decrease.   At the extreme, a company could go bankrupt.  In a bankruptcy, creditors (e.g., employees and vendors) are paid first.  If there is money left after creditors have been paid, then the remaining funds are used to re-pay a portion of any bond principal.  By definition, there isn’t enough money to pay all of the creditors and bondholders when there is a bankruptcy.  As such, the bondholders will not get all of their principal re-paid and there will be no money left after payment has been made to bondholders and creditors.  When there is no money left in the company, the stock becomes worthless.

Any of the following factors (and others) can cause the price of the stock to go down.

Economic Conditions Change

Changes in economic conditions can cause the interest rate used for discounting in the present value calculation to increase. When the interest rate increases, present values (estimates of the price) will go down.

Company Changes

Something changes at the company that causes other investors to believe that the company’s profits will be less than previously expected. One simple way that some investors estimate the price of a company’s stock is to multiply the company’s earnings by a factor, called the price-to-earnings ratio or P/E ratio.  Although P/E ratios aren’t constant over time, the price of a stock goes down when its earnings either decrease or are forecast to be lower than expected in the future. For more about P/E ratios and how a company calculates and reports on its earnings, check out this post

Increased Risk

Changes either in the economy or at the company can cause investors to think that the future profits of the company are more uncertain, i.e., riskier. When a cash flow is perceived to be riskier, a higher interest rate is used in the present value calculation.  This concept is illustrated in my post on bonds in the graph that shows how interest rates on bonds increase as the credit rating of the company goes down.  Recall that lower credit ratings correspond to higher risk.  The same concept applies to stock prices.  The prices of riskier stocks are less than the prices of less risky stocks if all other things are equal.

How Do People Decide What to Buy?

There are a number of approaches investors use to decide in which companies to buy stocks and when to buy and sell them.   I will discuss several of them in future posts.

Reasonable Price Investing

Reasonable price investors look at the financial fundaments and stock prices of companies to decide whether and when to buy and sell them.

Technical Analysis

Technical analysts, sometimes called momentum investors, look at patterns in the movement of the prices of companies’ stocks.  Day traders tend to be technical analysts whose time horizon for owning a stock can be hours or days.

High-Yield Investing

Some investors focus on companies who issue dividends.

Mutual Funds and Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs)

Rather than invest in individual companies, some investors purchase either mutual or exchange-traded funds.  Under this approach, the investor relies on the fund managers to select the companies and determine when to buy and sell each position.

How are Stocks Taxed?

There are two ways in which stocks can impact your income taxes:

  • When you receive a dividend.
  • When you sell your ownership interest in the stock.

The total amount of the dividend is subject to tax.  The difference between the proceeds of selling the stock and the amount you paid for the stock is called a realized capital gain or loss.  It is gain if the sale proceeds is more than the purchase amount and a loss if the sale proceeds are less than the purchase amount.

In the US, realized capital gains and losses on stocks you have owned for more than a year are added to dividends.  For most people, the sum of these two amounts is taxed at 15%.  For stocks owned for less than a year, the realized capital gains are taxed at your ordinary tax rate (i.e., the rate you pay on your wages).

In Canada, dividends and half of your realized capital gains are added to your wages.  The total of those amounts is subject to your ordinary income tax rate.

When Should I Buy Stocks?

Understand Stocks

The most important consideration in determining when to buy stocks is that you understand how stocks work.  One of the messages I wished I had given our children is to invest only in things you understand.  If you don’t understand stocks, you don’t want to invest in them.

Understand the Companies or Funds

You also want to make sure you understand the particular company or fund you are purchasing.  One of the biggest investing mistakes I made was when I was quite young and didn’t understand the business of the company whose stock I owned.

My parents gave me some shares of a company called Wang Laboratories.  In the 1970s and early 1980s, Wang was one of the leaders in the market for dedicated word processors.  Picture a desktop computer with a monitor that’s only software was Microsoft Word, only much harder to use.  That was Wang’s biggest product.  At one time, the stock price was $42.  Not understanding that PCs were entering the market and would be able to do so much more than a dedicated word processor, I was oblivious.  As the stock started going down, I sold a few shares in the high $30s.  When the stock dropped to $18, I told myself I would sell the rest when it got back to $21.  It never did.  A year or so later, the stock was completely worthless. Fortunately, I was young enough that I had a lot of time to recover and learn from this mistake.

Be Willing and Able to Understand the Risks

You should also not buy stocks if you can’t afford to lose some or all of your principal.  Even though only a few companies go bankrupt, such as Wang, the price of individual stocks can be quite volatile.  As discussed in my post on diversification, you can reduce the chances that your portfolio will have a decline in value by either owning a large number of stocks or owning them for a long time.  Nonetheless, you might find that the value of your portfolio is less than the amount you invested especially over short periods of time when you invest in stocks.  If you want to invest in stocks, you need to be willing to tolerate those ups and downs in value both mentally and financially.

Market Timing

There is an old investing adage, “Buy low, sell high.”  In principle, it is a great strategy.  In practice, though, it is hard to identify the peaks and valleys in either the market as a whole or an individual stock.

People who invest over very short time frames – hours or days – often use technical analysis to try to identify very short-term highs and lows to create gains.  I anticipate that most of my followers, though, will be investing for the long term and not day trading.  While you will want to select stocks that are expected to produce a return commensurate with their riskiness, it is very difficult to time the market.

That is, my suggestion for new investors with long-term investment horizons (e.g., for retirement or your young children’s college expenses) is to buy stocks or mutual funds you understand and think are likely to appreciate whenever you have the time and money available to do so.  If you happen to buy a fundamentally sound stock or index fund just before its price drops, it will be difficult to hang on but it is likely to increase in the price by the time you need to sell it.

As Chris @MoneyStir learned when he reviewed the post I wrote about whether he should pre-pay his mortgage, a fall in the stock market right after he started using his extra cash to buy stocks on a monthly basis was actually good for him!  While he lost money at first on his first few month’s investments, the ones he made over the next several months were at a lower stock price and produced a higher-than-average return over his investment horizon.  The process of buying stocks periodically, such as every month, is called dollar-cost averaging.

How and Where Do I Buy Stocks?

You can buy stocks, mutual funds and ETFs at any brokerage firm.  This article by Invested Wallet provides details on how to open an account at a brokerage firm.

Once you have an account, you need to know the name of the company or its symbol (usually 2-5 letters that can be found using Google or Yahoo Finance, for example), how many shares you want to buy and whether you want to set the price at which you purchase the stocks or buy them at the market price.

Limit Orders

If you determine you want to buy a stock at a particular price, it is called a limit order.  The advantage of a limit order is you know exactly how much you will pay.  The disadvantages of a limit order are:

  • You might pay more than you have to if the stock price is lower at the time you place your order.
  • You might not buy the stock if no one is interested in selling the stock at a price that is a low as your desired purchase price.

Market Orders

If you place a market order, you will buy the stock at whatever price sellers are willing to take for their stock at the moment you place your order.  In some cases, you may end up paying more than you want for a stock if the price jumps up right at the time you place your order.  The advantages of a market order are (1) you know you will own the stock and (2) you know you are getting the best price available at the time you buy the stock.

Transaction Fees

Many of the major brokerage firms have recently announced that they will no longer charge you each time you purchase or sell a stock.  Some firms charge you small transaction fees, such as $4.95, each time you place a buy or sell order.  Other firms have higher charges.  You’ll want to consider the fees when you select a brokerage firm.