What Are Stocks?

The Definition of a Stock
Plain and simple, stock is a share in the ownership of a company. Stock represents a claim on the company's assets and earnings. As you acquire more stock, your ownership stake in the company becomes greater. Whether you say shares, equity, or stock, it all means the same thing.

Being an Owner
Holding a company's stock means that you are one of the many owners (shareholders) of a company and, as such, you have a claim (albeit usually very small) to everything the company owns. Yes, this means that technically you own a tiny sliver of every piece of furniture, every trademark, and every contract of the company. As an owner, you are entitled to your share of the company's earnings as well as any voting rights attached to the stock.

A stock is represented by a stock certificate. This is a fancy piece of paper that is proof of your ownership. Being a shareholder of a public company does not mean you have a say in the day-to-day running of the business. Instead, one vote per share to elect the board of directors at annual meetings is the extent to which you have a say in the company. For instance, being an Assuria shareholder doesn't mean you can call up the president of the company and tell him how you think the company should be run. In the same line of thinking, being a shareholder of Surinaamse Brouwerij doesn't mean you can walk into the factory and grab a free case of Parbo Bier!

The management of the company is supposed to increase the value of the firm for shareholders. If this doesn't happen, the shareholders can vote to have the management removed, at least in theory. In reality, individual investors like you and I don't own enough shares to have a material influence on the company. It's really the big boys like large institutional investors and rich entrepreneurs who make the decisions.

For ordinary shareholders, not being able to manage the company isn't such a big deal. After all, the idea is that you don't want to have to work to make money, right? The importance of being a shareholder is that you are entitled to a portion of the company’s profits and have a claim on assets. Profits are sometimes paid out in the form of dividends. The more shares you own, the larger the portion of the profits you get. Your claim on assets is only relevant if a company goes bankrupt. In case of liquidation, you'll receive what's left after all the creditors have been paid. This last point is worth repeating: the importance of stock ownership is your claim on assets and earnings. Without this, the stock wouldn't be worth the paper it's printed on.

Another extremely important feature of stock is its limited liability, which means that, as an owner of a stock, you are not personally liable if the company is not able to pay its debts. Other companies such as partnerships are set up so that if the partnership goes bankrupt the creditors can come after the partners (shareholders) personally and sell off their house, car, furniture, etc. Owning stock means that, no matter what, the maximum value you can lose is the value of your investment. Even if a company of which you are a shareholder goes bankrupt, you can never lose your personal assets.

Debt vs. Equity
Why does a company issue stock? Why would the founders share the profits with thousands of people when they could keep profits to themselves? The reason is that at some point every company needs to raise money. To do this, companies can either borrow it from somebody or raise it by selling part of the company, which is known as issuing stock. A company can borrow by taking a loan from a bank or by issuing bonds. Both methods fit under the umbrella of debt financing.

On the other hand, issuing stock is called equity financing. Issuing stock is advantageous for the company because it does not require the company to pay back the money or make interest payments along the way. All that the shareholders get in return for their money is the hope that the shares will someday be worth more than what they paid for them. The first sale of a stock, which is issued by the private company itself, is called the initial public offering (IPO).

It is important that you understand the distinction between a company financing through debt and financing through equity. When you buy a debt investment such as a bond, you are guaranteed the return of your money (the principal) along with promised interest payments. This isn't the case with an equity investment. By becoming an owner, you assume the risk of the company not being successful - just as a small business owner isn't guaranteed a return, neither is a shareholder. As an owner, your claim on assets is less than that of creditors. This means that if a company goes bankrupt and liquidates, you, as a shareholder, don't get any money until the banks and bondholders have been paid out; we call this absolute priority. Shareholders earn a lot if a company is successful, but they also stand to lose their entire investment if the company isn't successful.

It must be emphasized that there are no guarantees when it comes to individual stocks. Some companies pay out dividends, but many others do not. And there is no obligation to pay out dividends even for those firms that have traditionally given them. Without dividends, an investor can make money on a stock only through its appreciation in the open market. On the downside, any stock may go bankrupt, in which case your investment is worth nothing.

Although risk might sound all negative, there is also a bright side. Taking on greater risk demands a greater return on your investment. This is the reason why stocks have historically outperformed other investments such as bonds or savings accounts. Over the long term, an investment in stocks has historically had an average return of around 10-12%.

Different Types Of Stocks

There are two main types of stocks: common stock and preferred stock.

Common Stock
Common stock is, well, common. When people talk about stocks they are usually referring to this type. In fact, the majority of stock is issued is in this form. We basically went over features of common stock in the last section. Common shares represent ownership in a company and a claim (dividends) on a portion of profits. Investors get one vote per share to elect the board members, who oversee the major decisions made by management.  Over the long term, common stock, by means of capital growth, yields higher returns than almost every other investment. This higher return comes at a cost since common stocks entail the most risk. If a company goes bankrupt and liquidates, the common shareholders will not receive money until the creditors, bondholders and preferred shareholders are paid.

Preferred Stock

Preferred stock represents some degree of ownership in a company but usually doesn't come with the same voting rights. (This may vary depending on the company.) With preferred shares, investors are usually guaranteed a fixed dividend forever. This is different than common stock, which has variable dividends that are never guaranteed. Another advantage is that in the event of liquidation, preferred shareholders are paid off before the common shareholder (but still after debt holders). Preferred stock may also be callable, meaning that the company has the option to purchase the shares from shareholders at anytime for any reason (usually for a premium).

Some people consider preferred stock to be more like debt than equity. A good way to think of these kinds of shares is to see them as being in between bonds and common shares.

Different Classes of Stock
Common and preferred are the two main forms of stock; however, it's also possible for companies to customize different classes of stock in any way they want. The most common reason for this is the company wanting the voting power to remain with a certain group; therefore, different classes of shares are given different voting rights. For example, one class of shares would be held by a select group who are given ten votes per share while a second class would be issued to the majority of investors who are given one vote per share. When there is more than one class of stock, the classes are traditionally designated as Class A and Class B.

How Stocks Trade

Most stocks are traded on exchanges, which are places where buyers and sellers meet and decide on a price. Some exchanges are physical locations where transactions are carried out on a trading floor (such as the Suriname Stock Exchange). The other type of exchange is virtual, composed of a network of computers where trades are made electronically.

The purpose of a stock market is to facilitate the exchange of securities between buyers and sellers, reducing the risks of investing. Just imagine how difficult it would be to sell shares if you had to call around the neighborhood trying to find a buyer. Really, a stock market is nothing more than a super-sophisticated farmers' market linking buyers and sellers.

Before we go on, we should distinguish between the primary market and the secondary market. The primary market is where securities are created (by means of an IPO) while, in the secondary market, investors trade previously-issued securities without the involvement of the issuing-companies. The secondary market is what people are referring to when they talk about the stock market. It is important to understand that the trading of a company's stock does not directly involve that company.

What Causes Stock Prices To Change?

Stock prices change every day as a result of market forces. By this we mean that share prices change because of supply and demand. If more people want to buy a stock (demand) than sell it (supply), then the price moves up. Conversely, if more people wanted to sell a stock than buy it, there would be greater supply than demand, and the price would fall.

Understanding supply and demand is easy. What is difficult to comprehend is what makes people like a particular stock and dislike another stock. This comes down to figuring out what news is positive for a company and what news is negative. There are many answers to this problem and just about any investor you ask has their own ideas and strategies.

That being said, the principal theory is that the price movement of a stock indicates what investors feel a company is worth. Don't equate a company's value with the stock price. The value of a company is its market capitalization, which is the stock price multiplied by the number of shares outstanding. For example, a company that trades at $100 per share and has 1,000 shares outstanding has a lesser value than a company that trades at $50 that has 5,000 shares outstanding ($100 x 1000 = $100,000 while $50 x 5,000 = $250,000). To further complicate things, the price of a stock doesn't only reflect a company's current value; it also reflects the growth that investors expect in the future.

The most important factor that affects the value of a company is its earnings. Earnings are the profit a company makes, and in the long run no company can survive without them. It makes sense when you think about it. If a company never makes money, it isn't going to stay in business. Public companies are required to report their earnings once a year  The reason behind this is that analysts base their future value of a company on their earnings projection. If a company's results surprise (are better than expected), the price jumps up. If a company's results disappoint (are worse than expected), then the price will fall.

Of course, it's not just earnings that can change the sentiment towards a stock (which, in turn, changes its price). It would be a rather simple world if this were the case! During the dotcom bubble, for example, dozens of internet companies rose to have market capitalizations in the billions of dollars without ever making even the smallest profit. As we all know, these valuations did not hold, and most internet companies saw their values shrink to a fraction of their highs. Still, the fact that prices did move that much demonstrates that there are factors other than current earnings that influence stocks. Investors have developed literally hundreds of these variables, ratios and indicators. Some you may have already heard of, such as the price/earnings ratio, while others are extremely complicated and obscure with names like Chaikin oscillator or moving average convergence divergence.

So, why do stock prices change? The best answer is that nobody really knows for sure. Some believe that it isn't possible to predict how stock prices will change, while others think that by drawing charts and looking at past price movements, you can determine when to buy and sell. The only thing we do know is that stocks are volatile and can change in price extremely rapidly.

The important things to grasp about this subject are the following:

  1. At the most fundamental level, supply and demand in the market determines stock price.
  2. Price times the number of shares outstanding (market capitalization) is the value of a company. Comparing just the share price of two companies is meaningless.
  3. Theoretically, earnings are what affect investors' valuation of a company, but there are other indicators that investors use to predict stock price. Remember, it is investors' sentiments, attitudes and expectations that ultimately affect stock prices.
  4. There are many theories that try to explain the way stock prices move the way they do. Unfortunately, there is no one theory that can explain everything.

Buying Stocks

You've now learned what a stock is and a little bit about the principles behind the stock market, but how do you actually go about buying stocks? Thankfully, you don't have to go down into the trading pit yelling and screaming your order. There are two main ways to purchase stock:

  1. Using a Brokerage
    The most common method to buy stocks is to use a brokerage. Brokerages come in two different flavors. Full-service brokerages offer you (supposedly) expert advice and can manage your account; they also charge a lot. Discount brokerages offer little in the way of personal attention but are much cheaper.
    At one time, only the wealthy could afford a broker since only the expensive, full-service brokers were available. With the internet came the explosion of online discount brokers. Thanks to them nearly anybody can now afford to invest in the market.
  2. DRIPs & DIPs
    Dividend reinvestment plans (DRIPs) and direct investment plans (DIPs) are plans by which individual companies, for a minimal cost, allow shareholders to purchase stock directly from the company. Drips are a great way to invest small amounts of money at regular intervals.
    At the Suriname Stock Exchange there is currently only one option to purchase stock, and that is to make use of a Broker.