What is a Stock?

By Kirsteen Mackay

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A stock is an asset that represents the value assigned to a portion of a business. Owning stock in a company means you own part of a company's equity.

A stock is the equity in a business – it is essentially the value assigned to a portion of a particular business. Therefore, stockholders own a percentage of the company’s equity. The process of buying and selling a stock is called trading. When purchasing and holding the stock for an extended period it’s called investing.

The terms stocks and shares are often used interchangeably, but shares are units of a stock. Therefore, stock refers to the entire allocation of shares in the company and also to individual allocations.

For example, Company A has 100,000 shares of stock. Alice buys 200 shares, and Bob buys 50 shares. Alice and Bob both own company stock, but Alice owns more stock in Company A than Bob.

Each stock is a type of financial security, which falls into the same category as a bond or option, but each has its unique characteristics. A stock represents the monetary value of the holder’s ownership of a company.

So, if Company A’s shares cost $10 each, Alice’s stock is worth $2,000, and Bob’s is worth $500.

Private and public companies have stock, but retail investors can usually only buy shares in publicly listed companies. Sometimes businesses allocate stock to their employees, which makes them shareholders and part-owners in the company.

How stocks work

When a company is formed, its ownership structure is clearly defined. The company’s value is split into shares, and each owner is allocated a portion. The entire stock allocation could go to one single owner, or it could be split between various titleholders.

For instance, a giant corporation such as Disney (NYSE: DIS) is owned by a wide selection of investors, each of which is allocated stock relative to their investment. These shareholders include company employees, investment advisors, hedge funds, insurance companies, sovereign wealth funds, pension funds, and individual investors (including high-net-worth individuals and retail investors).


When a company issues (sells) stock, it does so to raise money. This could be for many reasons, but most commonly to grow the company or invest in improving it. The company may use the money from selling its stock to pay for premises, machinery, staff, acquisitions, or more.


Investors buy stock in the hope it will appreciate in value. When a company’s value increases, so does its share price. This is called capital appreciation, and it’s one of the ways an investor can make money.

Another way is from dividends. Some company stocks come with a dividend yield which is like an interest payment. Not all stocks offer this, but some investors like to buy stocks with dividends attached, as it’s another way to realize a profit.

For many investors, stocks represent the backbone of their portfolios, although alternative investments are sometimes present too.

Where can investors buy a stock?

When a company first issues stock, this is called the primary market. Investors usually buy and sell stock on stock exchanges; these are referred to as secondary markets. There are many stock exchanges around the world supporting the trading of company stocks. Companies can also sell stocks via a private sale, but this is less common.

The trading of stocks via a stock exchange, such as The New York Stock Exchange (NYSE), is heavily regulated. This is to protect investors from fraud and provide credibility to the company. While stock exchanges are government regulated, there are different levels of credibility attached to the indices in which stocks are listed. For instance, stocks in the S&P 500 tend to carry more integrity than those listed on over-the-counter (OTC) markets.

Investors buy stocks from stockbrokers. Nowadays, there are many brokers to choose from online.

What does stock ownership entail?

Shareholders own company stock, but they do not own the underlying assets of the business.

The corporation is a legal entity in its own right and is treated like a person. This means the business takes ownership of all its assets. Therefore, its property, land, and furniture are owned by the company and not by the shareholders.

Types of stock

There are two main classifications of stock: common stock and preferred stock.

Common stock

Most stock issued is common stock. That’s why it’s called common. Historically, common stocks have proved a lucrative investment, bringing capital appreciation and high yields to owners.

Common stock usually comes with voting rights. So, owners receive one vote per share of stock owned. This gives them a voice in electing board members to oversee the running of the business.

Common stockholders sometimes receive dividend payments, but these vary depending on whether management deems it appropriate to pay dividends.


The owners of common stocks are last in line to be paid when things go wrong. For instance, if a company goes bankrupt or liquidates its assets, the common stock shareholders have the lowest repayment priority after creditors, bondholders, and preferred shareholders.


Preferred stock

Owners of preferred stock don’t usually have voting rights, but they are given priority when it comes to dividend payments. In fact, they typically receive a guaranteed dividend payment for life. And they are ahead of common stockholders to be paid in the event of liquidation.

Different stock classes

Although Common and Preferred stocks are the most popular classification, companies can also organize stock in bespoke classes.

One reason for this is to ensure voting power is maintained by a specific group of shareholders, such as the founding family. In this instance, the class of stock would receive a higher number of votes per share than the usual one vote found in common stock.

When a company customizes its stock like this, it usually results in different stock classes listed separately on a stock exchange. Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway is the most famous example of this. Berkshire has Class A shares with the ticker symbol BRK.A and Class B shares with the ticker symbol BRK.B. Both are listed on the NYSE.

Each class of Berkshire shares references the same company, but the share price differs wildly, as do the voting rights.

Other companies with dual-class stock include Royal Dutch Shell (RDSA and RDSB), Ford Motor Company (NYSE: FORD), Tyson Foods (NYSE: TSN), Hewlett Packard (NYSE: HPE), and Viacom (NASDAQ: VIAC).

Advantages of owning a stock

Making money

The primary goal of owning a stock is to make money. If the company does well, the share price should appreciate, and the stock owners will profit.

Company ownership

Some investors want to own a piece of the company and play a part in steering its journey.

Voting rights

Owning company stock gives the holder voting rights giving them a say in the way the company is run.

Disadvantages of owning a stock

Financial risk

When investors buy a stock, they risk losing their money if the company goes out of business. Alternatively, the share price may decline considerably from when the buyer purchased it, losing value.

Share dilution

A business can issue new company shares whenever it wants to raise funds. This dilutes the existing share count, potentially reducing the share price value. This process sometimes makes an attractive investment if the company is making a promising acquisition. But it often annoys existing shareholders causing the share price to fall.

Where’s the ‘Value’?

  • Own your favorite company: buying stock makes you a part-owner in the business. Owning shares in your favorite companies is a great way to start investing.

  • Low barrier to entry: you can start investing in a company with a small amount of money. Fee-free brokers have eliminated the barrier to investing so beginners can get started with as little as a dollar.

  • Easy access: buying stocks is increasingly easy so that beginners can get started with little fuss.

  • It can be lucrative: investing in the stock market has historically outperformed most other investments over a long period of time.

  • Share buy-backs: the opposite to a new stock issue is a share buy-back. This is when the company buys back a chunk of its shares, decreasing the pool of available stock. This benefits existing shareholders and often leads to a share price rise.

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Stocks

Author: Kirsteen Mackay

This article does not provide any financial advice and is not a recommendation to deal in any securities or product. Investments may fall in value and an investor may lose some or all of their investment. Past performance is not an indicator of future performance.