The Basics of Stock Trading: How Do Investors Choose Stocks?
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Stock Market Basics: How Do Investors Choose Stocks?

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Basics of Stock Trading: How Do Investors Choose Stocks?

You’ve likely heard about the recent drama involving GameStop, but unless you’re familiar with how the stock market works, the intricacies of what’s going on may have been lost on you.

And if that’s the case, we don’t blame you—the world of investing can feel like an intimidating place, especially if you’re relatively new to the scene. So for those looking to learn the basics of stock trading, this video by TED-Ed is a good place to start.

We touch on some key takeaways from the video below, like why stock prices fluctuate, how investors choose which stocks to purchase, and differences between active and passive investing.

Stocks, and Why Prices Fluctuate

If you’re still reading this, we’re going to assume you’re fairly unfamiliar with the world of stocks. So let’s start with the basics—what even is a stock?

A stock is a partial share of ownership in a company. Units of stock are called “shares,” and these are mostly traded on stock exchanges, like the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) or Nasdaq.

The price of a stock is determined by supply and demand, or the number of buyers versus sellers. When there are more buyers than sellers, the price increases. On the flipside, if there are more sellers than buyers, the price goes down.

Essentially, a company’s stock price is a reflection of how much investors think a company (or a portion of a company) is worth. That’s why a company doesn’t actually need to make profit to be valued by the market—investors simply need to have faith that it’ll become profitable eventually.

Because of the speculative nature of stocks, prices can fluctuate quickly and drastically, depending on public perceptions.

Passive Investors vs. Active Investors

So how do investors choose which stocks to purchase? Well, there are two main styles of investing—active and passive:

  • Active investors try to beat the market by purchasing shares they believe are undervalued, with the intent to sell once price goes up
  • Passive investors track the market, and tend to hold onto their stocks with the belief that over time, their value will increase

In the U.S., there’s a fairly even number of passive versus active investors—in 2019, about 45% of assets in U.S. stock funds were managed passively.

And while active investors have the potential to make a lot more money, passive investments have generally shown higher returns in the last decade.

Active Investors: Picking a Stock

Despite the risk involved (or perhaps because of it) many investors choose to actively manage their stocks. To assess a company’s potential value, and ultimately find undervalued stocks, an active investor may:

  • Investigate a company’s business operations
  • Review its financial statements
  • Track price trends, with the goal of finding a company that’s undervalued

An active investor may also choose to put money in one or more actively-managed funds, or simply hire a financial planner to do the work on their behalf.

Finding your Comfort Zone

Since there are pros and cons to both styles of investing, how you decide to invest, and where you fall on the investment continuum, ultimately depends on your expectations, risk tolerance, and long-term goals.

It’s also worth noting that these investment styles aren’t mutually exclusive—a combination of both can be used in order to cover all your bases.

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Investor Education

The Best Months for Stock Market Gains

This infographic analyzes over 30 years of stock market performance to identify the best and worst months for gains.

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The Best Months for Stock Market Gains

Many investors believe that equity markets perform better during certain times of the year.

Is there any truth to these claims, or is it superstitious nonsense? This infographic uses data gathered by Schroders, a British asset management firm, to investigate.

What the Data Says

This analysis is based on 31 years of performance across four major stock indexes:

  • FTSE 100: An index of the top 100 companies on the London Stock Exchange (LSE)
  • MSCI World: An index of over 1,000 large and mid-cap companies within developed markets
  • S&P 500: An index of the 500 largest companies that trade on U.S. stock exchanges
  • Eurostoxx 50: An index of the top 50 blue-chip stocks within the Eurozone region

The percentages in the following table represent the historical frequency of these indexes rising in a given month, between the years 1987 and 2018. Months are ordered from best to worst, in descending order.

RankMonth of Year Frequency of Growth (%)Difference from Mean (p.p.)
#1December79.0%+19.9
#2April74.3%+15.2
#3October68.6%+9.5
#4July61.7%+2.6
#5May58.6%-0.5
#6November58.4%-0.7
#7January57.8%-1.3
#8February57.0%-2.1
#9March56.3%-2.8
#10September51.6%-7.5
#11August49.3%-9.8
#12June36.7%-22.4
Average59.1%n/a

There are some outliers in this dataset that we’ll focus on below.

The Strong Months

In terms of frequency of growth, December has historically been the best month to own stocks. This lines up with a phenomenon known as the “Santa Claus Rally”, which suggests that equity markets rally over Christmas.

One theory is that the holiday season has a psychological effect on investors, driving them to buy rather than sell. We can also hypothesize that many institutional investors are on vacation during this time. This could give bullish retail investors more sway over the direction of the market.

The second best month was April, which is commonly regarded as a strong month for the stock market. One theory is that many investors receive their tax refunds in April, which they then use to buy stocks. The resulting influx of cash pushes prices higher.

Speaking of higher prices, we can also look at this trend from the perspective of returns. Focusing on the S&P 500, and looking back to 1928, April has generated an average return of 0.88%. This is well above the all-month average of 0.47%.

The Weak Months

The three worst months to own stocks, according to this analysis, are June, August, and September. Is it a coincidence that they’re all in the summer?

One theory for the season’s relative weakness is that institutional traders are on vacation, similar to December. Without the holiday cheer, however, the market is less frothy and the reduced liquidity leads to increased risk.

Whether you believe this or not, the data does show a convincing pattern. It’s for this reason that the phrase “sell in May and go away” has become popularized.

Key Takeaways

Investors should remember that this data is based on historical results, and should not be used to make forward-looking decisions in the stock market.

Anomalies like the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 can have a profound impact on the world, and the market as a whole. Stock market performance during these times may deviate greatly from their historical averages seen above.

Regardless, this analysis can still be useful to investors who are trying to understand market movements. For example, if stocks rise in December without any clear catalyst, it could be the famed Santa Claus Rally at work.

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Investor Education

A Visual Guide to Stock Splits

If companies want their stock price to rise, why would they want to split it, effectively lowering the price? This infographic explains why.

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A Visual Guide to Stock Splits

Imagine a shop window containing large pieces of cheese.

If the value of that cheese rises over time, the price may move beyond what the majority of people are willing to pay. This presents a problem as the store wants to continue selling cheese, and people still want to eat it.

The obvious solution is to divide the cheese into smaller pieces. That way, more people can once again afford to buy portions of it, and those who want more can simply buy more of the smaller pieces.

cheese and stock splits

The total volume of the cheese is still worth the same amount, it’s only the portion size that changed. As the infographic above by StocksToTrade demonstrates, the same concept applies to stock splits.

Like wheels of cheese, stocks can be split a number of different ways. Some of the more common splits are 2-for-1, 3-for-1, and 3-for-2. Less common splits can take place as well, such as when Apple increased its outstanding shares by a 7-to-1 ratio in 2014.

Why Companies Do Stock Splits

Of course, stocks aren’t cheese.

The real world of the financial markets, driven by macro trends and animal spirits, is more complex than items in a shop window.

If companies want their stock price to continue rising, why would they want to split it, effectively lowering the price? Here are a some specific reasons why:

1. Liquidity
As our cheese example illustrated, stocks can sometimes see price appreciation to the point where they are no longer accessible to a wide range of investors. Splitting the stock (i.e. making an individual share cheaper) is an effective way of increasing the total number of investors who can purchase shares.

2. Sending a Message
In many cases, announcing a stock split is a harbinger of prosperity for a company. Nasdaq found that companies that split their stock outperformed the market. This is likely due to investor excitement and the fact that companies often split their stock as they approach periods of growth.

3. Reducing Capital Costs
Stocks with prices that are too high have spreads that are wider than similar stocks. When spreads—the difference between the bid and offer—are too large, they eats into investor returns.

4. Meeting Index Criteria
There are specific instances when a company may want to adjust its share price to meet certain index requirements.

One example is the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA), the well-known 30-stock benchmark. The Dow is considered a price-weighted index, which means that the higher a company’s stock price, the more weight and influence it has within the index. Shortly after Apple conducted its 7-to-1 stock split in 2014, dropping the share price from about $650 to $90, the company was added to the DJIA.

On the flip side, a company might decide to pursue a reverse stock split. This takes the existing amount of shares held by investors and replaces them with fewer shares at a higher price. Aside from the general stigma associated with a lower share price, companies need to keep the price above a certain threshold or face the possibility of being delisted from an exchange.

Stock Splits Happen, but are not Inevitable

Alphabet will become the most recent high profile company to split their stock in early 2022. The company’s 20-for-1 stock split aims to make the share price more accessible to retail investors dropping the price from approximately $2,750 to $140 per share.

Conversely, Berkshire Hathaway has famously never split its stock. As a result, a single share of BRK.A is worth over $470,000. Berkshire Hathaway’s legendary founder, Warren Buffett, reasons that splitting the stock would run counter to his buy-and-hold investment philosophy.

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