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Stock Exchange,Shareholders $ Share prices

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Roshni Bhatia
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Thumbs up Stock Exchange,Shareholders $ Share prices - March 23rd, 2007

If I am a private citizen who owns a restaurant, and I am selling my restaurant stock to other private citizens in the community, I might do the whole transaction by word-of-mouth, or by placing an ad in the newspaper. This makes selling the stock easy for me. However, it creates a problem down the line for investors who want to sell their stock in the restaurant. The seller has to go out and find a buyer, which can be hard. A "stock market" solves this problem.
Stocks in publicly traded companies are bought and sold at a stock market (also known as a stock exchange). The New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) is an example of such a market. In your neighborhood, you have a "supermarket" that sells food. The reason you go the supermarket is because you can go to one place and buy all of the different types of food that you need in one stop -- it's a lot more convenient than driving around to the butcher, the dairy farmer, the baker, etc. The NYSE is a supermarket for stocks. The NYSE can be thought of as a big room where everyone who wants to buy and sell shares of stocks can go to do their buying and selling.

The exchange makes buying and selling easy. You don't have to actually travel to New York to visit the New York Stock Exchange -- you can call a stock broker who does business with the NYSE, and he or she will go to the NYSE on your behalf to buy or sell your stock. If the exchange did not exist, buying or selling stock would be a lot harder. You would have to place a classified ad in the newspaper, wait for a call and haggle on a price whenever you wanted to sell stock. With an exchange in place, you can buy and sell shares instantly.

The stock exchange has an interesting side effect. Because all the buying and selling is concentrated in one place, it allows the price of a stock to be known every second of the day. Therefore, investors can watch as a stock's price fluctuates based on news from the company, media reports, national economic news and lots of other factors. Buyers and sellers take all of these factors into account. So, for example, when the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) shut down the company ValuJet for a month in June 1996, the value of the stock plummeted. Investors could not be sure that the airline represented a going concern and began selling, driving the price down. The asset value of the company acted as a floor on the share price.

The price of a stock also reflects the dividend that the stock pays, the projected earnings of the company in the future, the price of tea in China (especially Lipton stock) and so on.

Any business that wants to sell shares of stock to a number of different people does so by turning itself into a corporation. The process of turning a business into a corporation is called incorporating.

If you start a restaurant by taking your own money to buy the building and the equipment, then what you have done is formed a sole proprietorship. You own the entire restaurant yourself -- you get to make all of the decisions and you keep all of the profit. If three people pool their money together and start a restaurant as a team, what they have done is formed a partnership. The three people own the restaurant themselves, sharing the profit and decision-making.

A corporation is different, and it is a pretty interesting concept. A corporation is a "virtual person." That is, a corporation is registered with the government, it has a social security number (known as a federal tax ID number), it can own property, it can go to court to sue people, it can be sued and it can make contracts. By definition, a corporation has stock that can be bought and sold, and all of the owners of the corporation hold shares of stock in the corporation to represent their ownership. One incredibly interesting characteristic of this "virtual person" is that it has an indefinite and potentially infinite life span.

There is a whole body of law that controls corporations -- these laws are in place to protect the shareholders and the public. These laws control a number of things about how a corporation operates and is organized. For example, every corporation has a board of directors (if all of the shares of a corporation are owned by one person, then that one person can decide that there will only be one person on the board of directors, but there is still a board). The shareholders in the company meet every year to vote on the people for the board. The board of directors makes the decisions for the company. It hires the officers (the president and other major officers of the company), makes the company's decisions and sets the company's policies. The board of directors can be thought of as the brain of the virtual person.

Shareholders and Stock Prices

From this description, you can see that a corporation has a group of owners -- the shareholders. The owners elect a board of directors to make the company's major decisions. The owners of a corporation become owners by buying shares of stock in the corporation. The board of directors decides how many total shares there will be. For example, a company might have one million shares of stock. The company can either be privately held or publicly held. In a privately held company, the shares of stock are owned by a small number of people who probably all know one another. They buy and sell their shares amongst themselves. A publicly held company is owned by thousands of people who trade their shares on a public stock exchange.
One of the big reasons why corporations exist is to create a structure for collecting lots of investment dollars in a business. Let's say that you would like to start your own airline. Most people cannot do this, because an airplane costs millions of dollars. An airline needs a whole fleet of planes and other equipment, plus it has to hire a lot of employees. A person who wants to start an airline will therefore form a corporation and sell stock in order to collect the money needed to get started.

A corporation is an easy way to gather large quantities of investment capital -- money from investors. When a corporation first sells stock to the public, it does so in an IPO (Initial Public Offering). The company might sell one million shares of stock at $20 a share to raise $20 million very quickly (that is a simplification -- the brokerage house in charge of the IPO will extract its fee from the $20 million, but let's ignore that here). The company then invests the $20 million in equipment and employees. The investors (the shareholders who bought the $20 million in stock) hope that with the equipment and employees, the company will make a profit and pay a dividend.

Another reason that corporations exist is to limit the liability of the owners to some extent. If the corporation gets sued, it is the corporation that pays the settlement. The corporation may go out of business, but that is the worst that can happen. If you are a sole proprietor who owns a restaurant and the restaurant gets sued, you are the one who is being sued. "You" and "the restaurant" are the same thing. If you lose the suit then you, personally, can lose everything you own in the process.

Stock Prices
Let's say that a new corporation is created and in its IPO it raises $20 million by selling one million shares for $20 a share. The corporation buys its equipment and hires its employees with that money. In the first year, when all the income and expenses are added up, the company makes a profit of $1 million. The board of directors of the company can decide to do a number of things with that $1 million:

It could put it in the bank and save it for a rainy day.
It could decide to give all of the profits to its shareholders, so it would declare a dividend of $1 per share.
It could use the money to buy more equipment and hire more employees to expand the company.
It could pick some combination of these three options.
If a company traditionally pays out most its profits to its shareholders, it is generally called an income stock. The shareholders get income from the company's profits. If the company puts most of the money back into the business, it is called a growth stock. The company is trying to grow larger by increasing the amount of equipment and the number of people who run it.
Stock Prices: Income vs. Growth
The price of an income stock tends to stay fairly flat. That is, from year to year, the price of the stock tends to remain about the same unless profits (and therefore dividends) go up. People are getting their money each year and the business is not growing. This would be the case for stock in a single restaurant that distributes all of its profits to the shareholders each year.

Let's say that the single restaurant decides, for several years, to save its profits, and eventually it opens a second restaurant. That is the behavior of a growth company. The value of the stock rises because, when the second restaurant opens, there is twice as much equipment and twice as much profit being earned by the company. In a growth stock, the shareholders do not get a yearly dividend, but they own a company whose value is increasing. Therefore, the shareholders can get more money when they sell their shares -- someone buying the stock would see the increasing book value of the company (the value of the buildings, equipment, etc.) and the increasing profit that the company is earning and, based on these factors, pay a higher price for the stock.

In a publicly traded company, all of the financial information about the company is public. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is in charge of collecting this information and making it available to investors. Shareholders also use a number of other indicators to determine how much a stock is worth. One simple indicator is the price/earnings ratio. This is the price of the stock divided by the earnings per share. There are all sorts of indicators like these, as well as a great deal of other financial information available on any stock.

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