How do investors choose stocks? – Richard Coffin

Every day, billions of stocks are traded
on the New York Stock Exchange alone. But with over 43,000 companies listed
on stock exchanges around the world, how do investors decide
which stocks to buy? To answer this question, it’s important
to first understand what stocks are, and what individuals and institutions
hope to achieve by investing in them. Stocks are partial shares
of ownership in a company. So by buying a stock, investors buy
a share in the company’s success— or failure—
as measured by the company’s profits. A stock’s price is determined
by the number of buyers and sellers trading it; if there are more buyers than sellers,
the price will increase, and vice versa. The market price of a share
therefore represents what buyers and sellers believe the stock,
and by association the company, is worth. So the price can change dramatically based on whether investors think
the company has a high potential for increasing profitability—
even if it isn’t profitable yet. Investors aim to make money
by purchasing stocks whose value will increase over time. Some investors aim simply to grow
their money at a faster rate than inflation diminishes its value.

Others have a goal
of “beating the market,” which means growing their money
at a faster rate than the cumulative performance
of all companies’ stocks. This idea of “beating the market”
is a source of debate among investors— in fact, investors break
into two main groups over it. Active investors believe it is possible
to beat the market by strategically selecting specific stocks
and timing their trades, while passive investors believe it isn’t
usually possible to beat the market, and don’t subscribe to stock picking.

The phrase “beating the market”
usually refers to earning a return on an investment that exceeds
the Standard & Poor 500 index. The S&P 500 is a measure
of the average performance of 500 of the largest companies
in the United States, weighted by company valuation, meaning that companies
with a higher market value have a larger effect on the S&P— again, market value corresponds
to what investors believe a company is worth
rather than actual profits. The S&P doesn’t directly represent
the market as a whole— many small and mid-range stocks can
fluctuate according to different patterns. Still, it’s a pretty good proxy
for the overall market. It’s often said that “the stock market behaves
like a voting machine in the short term, and a weighing machine in the long term”— meaning short term fluctuations
in stock prices reflect public opinion, but over the longer term, they do tend
to actually reflect companies’ profits. Active investors aim to exploit
the short term, “voting machine” aspect of the market. They believe the market
contains inefficiencies: that stock prices at any given point
in time may overvalue some companies, undervalue others, or fail to reflect
developments that will impact the market.

Active investors hope to exploit
these inefficiencies by buying stocks they think are priced low. To identify undervalued stocks, they may investigate a company’s
business operations, analyze its financial statements,
observe price trends, or use algorithms. Passive investors, by contrast, put their faith in the long term
“weighing machine” aspect of the market. They believe that even though markets may
exhibit inefficiencies at any given point, over time those inefficiencies
balance out— so if they buy a selection of stocks that
represents a cross-section of the market, over time it will grow. This is usually accomplished
through index funds, collections of stocks that represent
the broader market.

The S&P 500 index is one of many indexes. The overall goal is the same
for all index funds: to hold stocks for the long term
and ignore short-term market fluctuations. Ultimately, active and passive investing
aren’t mutually exclusive— many investment strategies
have elements of each, for example, choosing stocks actively
but holding them for the long term as passive investing advises. Investing is far from an exact science: if there was one foolproof method,
everyone would be doing it..

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