Language of the Stock Market

February 29, 2020

Summary: New investors might find it helpful to understand the basic language of the Stock Market.  In this article I discuss the basic vocabulary as it relates to practical ideas for personal investing.  Links are provided for further reading about a particular topic.

Investment returns

An investment is the payment of capital to earn a return.  The return is a gain (or loss) of value in the investment.  Taxes on returns are regulated by the Internal Revenue Service (I.R.S.) and local governments.   

  • Principal: the amount of money invested.
  • Capital: the cash or goods used to generate income.
  • Capital gain (or loss): the increase (or decrease) in cash value of an asset.
  • Dividend: a company’s cash payment to its stockowners.   
  • Interest: the borrower’s cash payment to the lender that is added to the principal of the  loan.

Investment portfolio

Financial assets are potential sources of income for investors.  Asset classes are groupings of assets that earn income in uniquely different ways.  The most popular asset classes are Equities and Fixed Income Securities.  Equities earn income by the sale of a security (e.g., shares of a Stock).  Fixed Income Securities earn guaranteed interest (e.g., bonds) or guaranteed dividends (e.g., preferred stocks).  Securities and investors are regulated by the Securities & Exchange Commission (S.E.C.). 

  • Securities: contracts that require an investment of money to generate profits from the efforts of other people. 
  • Stock: a security that represents part ownership of a company.  
  • Common stock: a security that entitles its owner to vote on important issues, collect dividends, and earn capital gains from the stock market.   
  • Preferred stock: a security that entitles its owner to receive dividends before dividends are paid to owners of the company’s common stock.  Preferred stockowners have no voting rights.    
  • Bond: the debt that requires a company to return an investor’s principal, plus interest, by the date of maturity.    

A Portfolio is the investor’s collection of financial assets called holdings.  By comparison, an Investment Fund is a portfolio of financial securities which are professionally managed on behalf of the fund’s investors.  Famous examples are mutual funds and exchange-traded funds (ETFs).  An actively managed portfolio generally seeks to earn higher returns than one which is passively managed.  The passively managed portfolio seeks to duplicate the returns of a market index.  

Glossary:

  • Market index: a hypothetical portfolio designed to measure the value of a market or market segment. 
  • ETF: an Investment Fund that sells shares of the fund in the stock market.  Index ETFs are passively managed. 

Stock market

A new stock is issued in its primary market.  The primary market is a private assembly of the company’s founders, venture capitalists, and third parties such as banks and advisors.  The stock may later be sold by public auction in the secondary market.  The secondary market is the familiar stock market where millions of investors, —like us!—,  trade cash for stocks and other exchange-traded securities (e.g., ETFs). 

Trading orders

The stock market participants include Investors who make offers, Brokers who generate orders, and Traders who finalize orders.  The broker’s trading platform is a computer program that assists investors with placing trading orders.  The platform provides a market “quote” comprised of the current purchasing price (the “bid”), sales price (the “ask”), last-traded price, and latest number of traded shares (the “volume”).   On any day there may be millions of orders to buy and sell in the stock market.  Orders are filled at the market price determined by an auction of shares conducted by the broker’s trader.  Brokers and traders often charge a fee for their services.  Custodians are hired by brokers to store traded securities in electronic accounts on behalf of investors.   

The simplest trading order, a MARKET ORDER, specifies the number of shares to be traded.  Market orders are filled immediately provided the shares are available; otherwise, the order remains open until shares are available.  Conditional limit- and stop orders are stored in computers until activated or expired at the end of a period called the time-in-force.  The LIMIT ORDER requires an investor to specify a preferred price for the trade.  Limit orders are activated when the market price reaches the preferred price and then filled at the preferred price or a better price. Please be aware that a sudden market event could displace the market price outside the limit range of an activated order, in which case the limit order is cancelled unfilled. The STOP ORDER is activated at a specified price after which it is converted to a market order to be filled immediately regardless of the next available price. 

Stock market index

Analysts like to follow the price trend of stocks by graphing a representative number called the stock market index.  The index rises and falls at any moment according to fluctuations in share prices during stock market transactions.  An influential sales surge moves prices downward and a buying surge generally sends prices upward.

Daily index values are strung together to form an observable trend called the market cycle.  The long market cycle is comprised of a “bull” market followed by a “bear” market.  The short market cycle is either a rally or a correction. Spikes and crashes are brief events caused by a sudden, large change of the index (chart 1).  

  • Bull market: a 20% rise of the market index over 2 months or more.
  • Bear market: a 20% fall of the market index over 2 months or more.  
  • Rally: a rise of the market index due to a burst of buying that subsides after the money is spent.
  • Correction: a 10% decline of the market index over 2-10 days.
  • Spike: a sudden large upward or downward price movement.
  • Crash: a sudden correction that lasts 1-2 days.
  • Circuit breakers: programmed halts of trading designed to offset a downward plunge of stock prices.  

Chart 1. Long and short cycles of the Dow Jones Industrial Average (“DOW”).

market cycles, DJIA

In chart 1, the vertical scale shows values of the DOW Index during a 20 year time period shown by the horizontal scale.  The jagged line represents daily fluctuations of market prices. Green, red, and black symbols illustrate the timing of various market cycles and events.  The horizontal line of green and red segments portrays 4 long cycles of the DOW Index.  After the partial 1st cycle (Jan 2000-Jul. 2001), the complete 2nd (Oct. 2001-Aug. 2002) and 3rd cycles (Sep. 2002-Mar. 2009) show orderly sequences of bull and bear markets.  The nearly complete 4th cycle began with a very long bull market of eleven years (Mar. 2009- Jan. 2020) that recently reverted to a bear market at the time of this writing.  Chart 1 also shows short cycles of rallies (green triangles) and corrections (red triangles).  A few market crashes (black triangles) in Nov. 2008 and Mar. 2020 represent 1-2 day periods of a 10% drop in the Index.  Rapid declines of the Index by 7% in one day triggered temporary halts of trading (black circles) known as “circuit breakers”.

Diversification

Stocks are high risk investments with respect to potential capital gains (upside risk) and losses (downside risk).  Capital loss occurs when the company declares bankruptcy or its share prices decline.  Stock diversification, dollar cost averaging, and dividend reinvestment plans (DRIPs) are effective strategies for managing the common risks of stocks.  Monthly purchases of a Stock-index Fund accomplish these strategies.  Chart 2 illustrates the potential capital gains from investing in a Stock-index Fund that duplicates a broad market index such as the S&P 500.

Chart 2.  Historical prices of the S&P 500 Index.

dividend reinvestment

Assuming that the Fund matches the performance of the S&P 500 Indexthe difference between holding the original investment in the Fund without further action (red graph) and augmenting the holding with reinvested shares (blue graph) illustrates the potential benefit of a dividend reinvestment plan.  In this example, the benefit became ‘significant’ after 6 years.       

Postscript

Stock investing is a time-consuming process that might not interest many people who wish to put their money in the market.  They can save time (and money) by investing in a Stock-index Fund that provides an instant portfolio of diversified stocks for long term investment.

Stocks are one of several investable asset classes.  People with short term goals should consider diversifying their portfolio with different asset classes.

Copyright © 2020 Douglas R. Knight 


Conditional orders for stock trades

September 6, 2014

[The basic concept of ‘price diligence’ was inserted on 3/20/2015.  The MockTrades planner was updated on 12/11/2014]

Introduction

Individual investors typically use a market order to buy and sell stocks, ETFs, and REITs.   Market orders activate the trade immediately at the next available price; this controls the time rather than the price.  You can exert more control over trading conditions by placing a conditional (a.k.a. advanced, automated) order.  Conditional orders are considered a form of ‘price diligence’ because they specify the share’s price for activating the trade at any time during approximately 60-90 days, depending on your brokerage firm’s expiration date.  The conditional order controls the price rather than the time of the trade.  After reading this article, you may wish to download SmallTrade’s MockTrades4 for free; it’s uniquely designed to account for market volatility when planning a conditional order.

The trading arena; a simplified description

Stocks and other securities are traded for cash by an auction process in the stock market.  The participants are investors who make offers, brokers who generate orders, and traders who finalize the orders.  Individual investors submit offers to brokers through a computer terminal or by direct communication.  Use of the computer terminal gives the illusion of directly participating in the auction process, but there are several intermediary steps occurring at the speed of light along with a few brief delays.  The first delay is at the brokerage firm where all offers are filtered, recorded, and transmitted to traders in the stock market.  At any moment in the stock market, there are millions of orders to buy and sell securities.

The broker’s computer program, called a trading platform, provides investors with a market quote plus commands for placing a trading order.  The market quote reports a current purchasing price (“ASK”), sales price (“BID”), last-traded price, and latest number (a.k.a. volume, quantity) of traded shares (a.k.a. units).  Valid trading orders are announced to all market participants and filled at the next available price. The next available price is determined by an auction of the available shares for which a trader serves as the auctioneer.  The price can fluctuate between trades and is not protected from fluctuation until the order is filled.  Brokers and traders are always paid a fee for their services.  Custodians are hired by brokers to store traded securities in electronic accounts on behalf of the investors.

Trading orders

As an individual investor, you may place one of several types of trading orders in your broker’s trading platform.  The simplest, called a market order, merely specifies the number of shares to be traded.  The market order is filled immediately unless a time delay is imposed by an undersupply of available shares.

A limit order specifies the preferred price of the trade.  This order is filled when the next available price either matches the limit price or provides a better price {in other words, the limit price is YOUR minimum selling price or maximum purchasing price}.  There is only one opportunity for the limit order to be filled after it is placed in the market.  In rare instances, an unusual market event may shift the next available price out of your limit’s price range, in which case the order is cancelled without an exchange of cash for shares.  Your only recourse is to place a new limit order.  The limit order is used to protect from shifting prices.

Stop and stop-limit orders are useful for protecting against losses of investment capital.  The stop is a specific price at which your trading order will be submitted as a market order.  Your stop is stored in the exchange’s computer until it is submitted or expires at the end of a time period called the time-in-force (“TIF”).   The market order is then filled immediately at the next available price, which may shift to a better or worse price than the stop’s price.  The stop-limit is a specific price at which your trading order will be submitted to the stock exchange as a limit order.  It too has an expiration date.  The limit order protects your trading price until the order is filled, cancelled by the expiration date, or cancelled by an unusual market event. Your only recourse to a cancelled order is to place a new stop-limit order.

Trailing stop orders provide opportunities to seek a better trading price in the market.   The trailing stop is a specific point spread (1 point equals $1) by which the stop price will trail the movement of market prices toward a better price.  In general, the trailing stop can move toward a better price but won’t move toward a worse price.  The trailing price resides above or below the market’s price by the cash value of the point spread.  The trailing price adjusts upward with market prices when you offer to sell shares and downward when you offer to buy shares.  Reversal of the market price initially stops the adjustment of the trailing price and eventually triggers the submission of a market order.   The trailing stop order is stored in the brokerage firm’s computer until its expiration date or the submission of a market order.

Setting the stop

Trading platforms are designed to set stops above the ASK and below the BID of a market quote.  For example, when you offer to purchase shares with a stop or trailing stop order, a market order is submitted when the market’s ASK increases to the stop price.  Or when you offer to sell shares with stop-limit order, a limit order is submitted when the market’s BID decreases to the stop price.

The likelihood that daily fluctuations in market price will trigger any type of stop order depends on the width of the margin between the stop price and market price.  Exceptionally narrow margins may trigger an order the same day and exceptionally wide margins may cause the order to expire before being triggered.  The width of the margin depends on your trading strategy.  What is your acceptable price range for buying and selling a security?  Do you prefer using the same margin for all stops or customizing the margin based on price volatility?  The SmallTrades MockTrades4 is a free, useful worksheet (in Microsoft’s Excel™ format) for customizing the stop margin of your trading order.

Applications

Stop and stop limit orders are typically used to protect against capital losses when market prices are declining.  Trailing stop orders can help maximize a sales price or minimize a purchase price.   Examples of these applications can be found online in the educational materials of brokerage firms.  This user-friendly version, “Secure your position”, was a free download provided by the Commonwealth Securities Limited (“CommSec”), Sydney, web site.

Copyright © 2014 Douglas R. Knight

 


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