The stock market refers to the collection of markets and exchanges where regular activities of buying, selling, and issuance of shares of publicly-held companies take place. Such financial activities are conducted through institutionalized formal exchanges or over-the-counter (OTC) marketplaces which operate under a defined set of regulations. There can be multiple stock trading venues in a country or a region which allow transactions in stocks and other forms of securities.
While both terms - stock market and stock exchange - are used interchangeably, the latter term is generally a subset of the former. Trading in the stock market, means buying and selling shares/equities on one (or more) of the stock exchange(s) that are part of the overall stock market. The leading stock exchanges in the U.S. include the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE), Nasdaq, the Better Alternative Trading System (BATS) and the Chicago Board Options Exchange (CBOE). These leading national exchanges, along with several other exchanges operating in the country, form the stock market of the U.S. Though it is called a stock market or equity market and is primarily known for trading stocks/equities, other financial securities-like exchange traded funds (ETF), corporate bonds and derivatives based on stocks, commodities, currencies, and bonds - are also traded in the stock markets.
Functions of a Stock Market
A stock market primarily serves the following functions:
Fair Dealing in Securities Transactions:
Depending on the standard rules of demand and supply, the stock exchange needs to ensure that all interested market participants have instant access to data for all buy and sell orders thereby helping in the fair and transparent pricing of Additionally, it should also perform efficient matching of appropriate buy and sell orders. For example, there may be three buyers who have placed orders for buying Microsoft shares at $100, $105 and $110, and there may be four sellers who are willing to sell Microsoft shares at $110, $112, $115 and $120. The exchange (through their computer operated automated trading systems) needs to ensure that the best buy and best sell are matched, which in this case is at $110 for the given quantity of trade.
Efficient Price Discovery:
Stock markets need to support an efficient mechanism for price discovery, which refers to the act of deciding the proper price of a security and is usually performed by assessing market supply and demand and other factors associated with the transactions. Say, a U.S.-based software company is trading at a price of $100 and has a market capitalization of $5 billion. A news item comes in that the EU regulator has imposed a fine of $2 billion on the company which essentially means that 40 percent of the company‘s value may be wiped out. While the stock market may have imposed a trading price range of $90 and $110 on the company‘s share price, it should efficiently change the permissible trading price limit to accommodate for the possible changes in the share price, else shareholders may struggle to trade at a fair price.
While getting the number of buyers and sellers for a particular financial security are out of control for the stock market, it needs to ensure that whosoever is qualified and willing to trade gets instant access to place orders which should get executed at the fair price.
Security and Validity of Transactions:
While more participants are important for efficient working of a market, the same market needs to ensure that all participants are verified and remain compliant with the necessary rules and regulations, leaving no room for default by any of the Additionally, it should ensure that all associated entities operating in the market must also adhere to the rules, and work within the legal framework given by the regulator.
Support All Eligible Types of Participants:
A marketplace is made by a variety of participants, which include market makers, investors, traders, speculators, and hedgers. All these participants operate in the stock market with different roles and functions. For instance, an investor may buy stocks and hold them for long term spanning many years, while a trader may enter and exit a position within seconds. A market maker provides necessary liquidity in the market, while a hedger may like to trade in derivatives for mitigating the risk involved in investments. The stock market should ensure that all such participants are able to operate seamlessly fulfilling their desired roles to ensure the market continues to operate efficiently.
Along with wealthy and institutional investors, a very large number of small investors are also served by the stock market for their small amount of investments. These investors may have limited financial knowledge, and may not be fully aware of the pitfalls of investing in stocks and other listed instruments. The stock exchange must implement necessary measures to offer the necessary protection to such investors to shield them from financial loss and ensure customer trust. For instance, a stock exchange may categorize stocks in various segments depending on their risk profiles and allow limited or no trading by common investors in high-risk stocks. Derivatives, which have been described by Warren Buffett as financial weapons of mass destruction, are not for everyone as one may lose much more than they bet for. Exchanges often impose restrictions to prevent individuals with limited income and knowledge from getting into risky bets of derivatives.
Listed companies are largely regulated and their dealings are monitored by market regulators, like the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) of the S. Additionally, exchanges also mandate certain requirements-like, timely filing of quarterly financial reports and instant reporting of any relevant developments - to ensure all market participants become aware of corporate happenings. Failure to adhere to the regulations can lead to suspension of trading by the exchanges and other disciplinary measures.
Regulating the Stock Market
A local financial regulator or competent monetary authority or institute is assigned the task of regulating the stock market of a country. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is the regulatory body charged with overseeing the U.S. stock markets. The SEC is a federal agency that works independently of the government and political pressure. The mission of the SEC is stated as: "to protect investors, maintain fair, orderly, and efficient markets, and facilitate capital formation."
Stock Market Participants
Along with long-term investors and short term traders, there are many different types of players associated with the stock market. Each has a unique role, but many of the roles are intertwined and depend on each other to make the market run effectively.
Stockbrokers, also known as registered representatives in the U.S., are the licensed professionals who buy and sell securities on behalf of investors. The brokers act as intermediaries between the stock exchanges and the investors by buying and selling stocks on the investors' behalf. An account with a retail broker is needed to gain access to the markets.
Portfolio managers are professionals who invest portfolios, or collections of securities, for clients. These managers get recommendations from analysts and make the buy or sell decisions for the portfolio. Mutual fund companies, hedge funds, and pension plans use portfolio managers to make decisions and set the investment strategies for the money they hold.
Investment bankers represent companies in various capacities, such as private companies that want to go public via an IPO or companies that are involved in pending mergers and acquisitions. They take care of the listing process in compliance with the regulatory requirements of the stock market.
Custodian and depot service providers, which are institution holding customers' securities for safekeeping so as to minimize the risk of their theft or loss, also operate in sync with the exchange to transfer shares to/from the respective accounts of transacting parties based on trading on the stock market.
Competition for Stock Markets: While individual stock exchanges compete against each other to get maximum transaction volume, they are facing threat on two fronts.
Dark Pools: Dark pools, which are private exchanges or forums for securities trading and operate within private groups, are posing a challenge to public stock markets. Though their legal validity is subject to local regulations, they are gaining popularity as participants save big on transaction fees.
Block chain Ventures: Amid rising popularity of block chains, many crypto exchanges have emerged. Such exchanges are venues for trading crypto currencies and derivatives associated with that asset class. Though their popularity remains limited, they pose a threat to the traditional stock market model by automating a bulk of the work done by various stock market participants and by offering zero- to low-cost services.
Significance of the Stock Market
The stock market is one of the most vital components of a free-market economy.
It allows companies to raise money by offering stock shares and corporate bonds. It lets common investors participate in the financial achievements of the companies, make profits through capital gains, and earn money through dividends, although losses are also possible. While institutional investors and professional money managers do enjoy some privileges owing to their deep pockets, better knowledge and higher risk taking abilities, the stock market attempts to offer a level playing field to common individuals.
The stock market works as a platform through which savings and investments of individuals are channelized into the productive investment proposals. In the long term, it helps in capital formation & economic growth for the country.