The stock market is a creature in and of itself. At times it makes sense and at other times, no one can explain why it acts the way it does. What is clear is that, over the long run, the stock market will climb and climb faster than almost any other traditional investment. With that said, there are also moments (that sometimes last years) when the value of the stock market gets out of whack with the underlying companies and with the economy.
HOW THE STOCK MARKET WORKS
The stock market is driven by supply and demand. The number of shares of stock dictates the supply and the number of shares that investors want to buy dictates the demand. It's important to understand that for every share that is purchased, there is someone on the other end selling that share (or vice versa). The stock market is really just a big, automated superstore where everyone goes to buy and sell their stock. The main players in the stock market are the exchanges. Exchanges are where the sellers are matched with buyers to both facilitate trading and to help set the price of the shares. The primary exchanges are the Nasdaq, the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE), all of the ECNs (electronic communication networks) and a few other regional exchanges like the American Stock Exchange and the Pacific Stock Exchange. Years ago, all of the trading was done through the traditional exchanges (like the NYSE, American and Pacific Exchanges) but now almost all of the trading is done through the Nasdaq, which uses ECNs and thousands of other firms with access to the Nasdaq to facilitate trading.
Here's an example of one of the many ways that the stock market works:
You open an account with E*Trade. You send E*Trade a check for $1,000. E*Trade deposits the check into a trading account that is listed under your name. You log onto E*Trade and place an order to buy 100 shares of a stock in Company A, which is currently trading at $5. E*Trade uses it's network to tell the Nasdaq and all of it's related networks that there is demand for 100 shares of Company A's stock. The Nasdaq finds someone who is willing to sell 100 shares of Company A and, instantaneously, they execute the trading of stock between you and the person selling the shares. The trade information is sent to a clearinghouse where the information is processed and the shares will now be registered to you. Basically, the clearinghouse will designate 100 shares of Company A to E*Trade and E*Trade will designate those 100 shares as yours. The actual stock certificates are typically held "in street name" and never really need to exchange hands (although you could request that the stock certificates be transferred to your name).
In a nutshell, that's how the stock market works. The stock market is really just like any other marketplace - it facilitates the exchange of goods between interested parties and works to reduce distribution costs and set prices.
HOW STOCKS ARE VALUED
Stocks have two types of valuations. One is a value created using some type of cash flow, sales or fundamental earnings analysis. The other value is dictated by how much an investor is willing to pay for a particular share of stock and by how much other investors are willing to sell a stock for (in other words, by supply and demand). Both of these values change over time as investors change the way they analyze stocks and as they become more or less confident in the future of stocks. Let me discuss both types of valuations.
First, the fundamental valuation. This is the valuation that people use to justify stock prices. The most common example of this type of valuation methodology is P/E ratio, which stands for Price to Earnings Ratio. This form of valuation is based on historic ratios and statistics and aims to assign value to a stock based on measurable attributes. This form of valuation is typically what drives long-term stock prices.
The other way stocks are valued is based on supply and demand. The more people that want to buy the stock, the higher its price will be. And conversely, the more people that want to sell the stock, the lower the price will be. This form of valuation is very hard to understand or predict, and is often drives the short-term stock market trends.
WHY THE STOCK MARKET IS A GOOD INVESTMENT (IN THE LONG TERM)
Itís all about risk and return, and because your money is at more risk in the stock market than if you park it in a savings or CD (by the way, the money you invest in a CD is probably reinvested by the company offering the CD), the potential return is higher. Itís true that the gyrations in the stock market can cause both large losses and large gains, but if your investment time horizon is long enough, these short-term fluctuations will result in relatively high returns. It is generally accepted, that the average long term return from investing in stocks is 10-12%. This is much higher than the average CD or savings rate of 4-6%.
WHY THE STOCK MARKET GETS OUT OF WHACK WITH REALITY
Over the long term, the stock market is driven by underlying economic, financial and global growth. But in the short run, the market is driven by simple greed and fear, which are dictated by human emotions. During periods of prosperity, the stock market often rises faster than underlying earnings. During tough economic times, political uncertainty, and low consumer confidence, the stock market often performs worse than the underlying fundamentals predict.
RECOMMEND WAYS TO INVEST IN THE STOCK MARKET
Donít try to time the market.
As tempting as it is to try, it is not possible to time the stock market. People have written millions of pages of research on this topic and NO ONE has ever found a legitimate way to determine its trends.
Use cost averaging.
By buying stocks on a periodic basis (like once a paycheck, once a month or even once a year), you will always be buying at an average price. If you try to time the market, you may be buying at a high or low valuation.
Take taxes into account.
When you buy stocks, try to hold them for more than one year so you get taxed at the long term capital gains rate, which is currently 18%. If you sell your stock before one year, you will be taxed at your ordinary income tax rate, which is almost always higher than 18%, sometimes twice as high.
Invest as much as possible into tax-sheltered 401K, 403B and IRAs.
By investing in tax-deferred plans, you are able to invest money and not worry about the tax implications. With 401K and 403B plans, you get to invest your earnings before taxes, so the investment will grow on a higher base. For example, if you received a paycheck for $2,000 gross pay and taxes were taken out, you'd be left with only $1,200 or so to invest. The investment return on $1,200 could be substantial, but if you could invest that same $2,000 in a tax deferred account, you would be investing and earning a return on $2,000 instead of $1,200. Also, many employers offer matching investments that could make that $2,000 investment equivalent to a $4,000 investment. Put as much as you can into these tax deferred investments.
Diversify your investments.
Don't just invest in stocks. It is better if you diversify your investments into other asset classes including real estate (a house), cash (savings account or CD) and maybe even bonds. That way, if one asset class really under performs, you will have some exposure to the better performing assets.
Diversify your stocks (mutual funds).
When investing in the stock market, don't load up on just one or two stocks. Diversify your investments across many stocks. If your portfolio is not large enough to buy 15 or more different stocks, you should consider purchasing one or more mutual funds to ensure diversification.
From Free Financial Advice
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Lauren Crawford is a financial analyst from Chicago.
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