United States - Economy Stocks, Commodities, and Markets
During most of the 20th century, investors could earn more by investing in stocks than in other types of financial investments -- provided they were willing to hold stocks for the long term.
In the short term, stock prices can be quite volatile, and impatient investors who sell during periods of market decline easily can suffer losses. Peter Lynch, a renowned former manager of one of America's largest stock mutual funds, noted in 1998, for instance, that U.S. stocks had lost value in 20 of the previous 72 years. According to Lynch, investors had to wait 15 years after the stock market crash of 1929 to see their holdings regain their lost value. But people who held their stock 20 years or more never lost money. In an analysis prepared for the U.S. Congress, the federal government's General Accounting Office said that in the worst 20-year period since 1926, stock prices increased 3 percent. In the best two decades, they rose 17 percent. By contrast, 20-year bond returns, a common investment alternative to stocks, ranged between 1 percent and 10 percent.
Economists conclude from analyses like these that small investors fare best if they can put their money into a diversified portfolio of stocks and hold them for the long term. But some investors are willing to take risks in hopes of realizing bigger gains in the short term. And they have devised a number of strategies for doing this.
Buying on Margin. Americans buy many things on credit, and stocks are no exception. Investors who qualify can buy "on margin," making a stock purchase by paying 50 percent down and getting a loan from their brokers for the remainder. If the price of stock bought on margin rises, these investors can sell the stock, repay their brokers the borrowed amount plus interest and commissions, and still make a profit. If the price goes down, however, brokers issue "margin calls," forcing the investors to pay additional money into their accounts so that their loans still equal no more than half of the value of the stock. If an owner cannot produce cash, the broker can sell some of the stock -- at the investor's loss -- to cover the debt.
Buying stock on margin is one kind of leveraged trading. It gives speculators -- traders willing to gamble on high-risk situations -- a chance to buy more shares. If their investment decisions are correct, speculators can make a greater profit, but if they are misjudge the market, they can suffer bigger losses.
The Federal Reserve Board (frequently called"the Fed"), the U.S. government's central bank, sets the minimum margin requirements specifying how much cash investors must put down when they buy stock. The Fed can vary margins. If it wishes to stimulate the market, it can set low margins. If it sees a need to curb speculative enthusiasm, it sets high margins. In some years, the Fed has required a full 100 percent payment, but for much of the time during the last decades of the 20th century, it left the margin rate at 50 percent.
Selling Short. Another group of speculators are known as "short sellers." They expect the price of a particular stock to fall, so they sell shares borrowed from their broker, hoping to profit by replacing the stocks later with shares purchased on the open market at a lower price. While this approach offers an opportunity for gains in a bear market, it is one of the riskiest ways to trade stocks. If a short seller guesses wrong, the price of stock he or she has sold short may rise sharply, hitting the investor with large losses.
Options. Another way to leverage a relatively small outlay of cash is to buy "call" options to purchase a particular stock later at close to its current price. If the market price rises, the trader can exercise the option, making a big profit by then selling the shares at the higher market price (alternatively, the trader can sell the option itself, which will have risen in value as the price of the underlying stock has gone up). An option to sell stock, called a "put" option, works in the opposite direction, committing the trader to sell a particular stock later at close to its current price. Much like short selling, put options enable traders to profit from a declining market. But investors also can lose a lot of money if stock prices do not move as they hope.
The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), which was created in 1934, is the principal regulator of securities markets in the United States. Before 1929, individual states regulated securities activities. But the stock market crash of 1929, which triggered the Great Depression, showed that arrangement to be inadequate. The Securities Act of 1933 and the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 consequently gave the federal government a preeminent role in protecting small investors from fraud and making it easier for them to understand companies' financial reports.
The commission enforces a web of rules to achieve that goal. Companies issuing stocks, bonds, and other securities must file detailed financial registration statements, which are made available to the public. The SEC determines whether these disclosures are full and fair so that investors can make well-informed and realistic evaluations of various securities. The SEC also oversees trading in stocks and administers rules designed to prevent price manipulation; to that end, brokers and dealers in the over-the-counter market and the stock exchanges must register with the SEC. In addition, the commission requires companies to tell the public when their own officers buy or sell shares of their stock; the commission believes that these "insiders" possess intimate information about their companies and that their trades can indicate to other investors their degree of confidence in their companies' future.
The agency also seeks to prevent insiders from trading in stock based on information that has not yet become public. In the late 1980s, the SEC began to focus not just on officers and directors but on insider trades by lower-level employees or even outsiders like lawyers who may have access to important information about a company before it becomes public.
The SEC has five commissioners who are appointed by the president. No more than three can be members of the same political party; the five-year term of one of the commissioners expires each year.
The Commodity Futures Trading Commission oversees the futures markets. It is particularly zealous in cracking down on many over-the-counter futures transactions, usually confining approved trading to the exchanges. But in general, it is considered a more gentle regulator than the SEC. In 1996, for example, it approved a record 92 new kinds of futures and farm commodity options contracts. From time to time, an especially aggressive SEC chairman asserts a vigorous role for that commission in regulating futures business.
"Black Monday" and the Long Bull Market
On Monday, October 19, 1987, the value of stocks plummeted on markets around the world. The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 22 percent to close at 1738.42, the largest one-day decline since 1914, eclipsing even the famous October 1929 market crash.
The Brady Commission (a presidential commission set up to investigate the fall) the SEC, and others blamed various factors for the 1987 debacle -- including a negative turn in investor psychology, investors' concerns about the federal government budget deficit and foreign trade deficit, a failure of specialists on the New York Stock Exchange to discharge their duty as buyers of last resort, and "program trading" in which computers are programmed to launch buying or selling of large volumes of stock when certain market triggers occur. The stock exchange subsequently initiated safeguards. It said it would restrict program trading whenever the Dow Jones Industrial Average rose or fell 50 points in a single day, and it created a "circuit-breaker" mechanism to halt all trading temporarily any time the DJIA dropped 250 points. Those emergency mechanisms were later substantially adjusted to reflect the large rise in the DJIA level. In late 1998, one change required program-trading curbs whenever the DJIA rose or fell 2 percent in one day from a certain average recent close; in late 1999, this formula meant that program trading would be halted by a market change of about 210 points. The new rules set also a higher threshold for halting all trading; during the fourth quarter of 1999, that would occur if there was at least a 1,050-point DJIA drop.
Those reforms may have helped restore confidence, but a strong performance by the economy may have been even more important. Unlike its performance in 1929, the Federal Reserve made it clear it would ease credit conditions to ensure that investors could meet their margin calls and could continue operating. Partly as a result, the crash of 1987 was quickly erased as the market surged to new highs. In the early 1990s, the Dow Jones Industrial Average topped 3,000, and in 1999 it topped the 11,000 mark. What's more, the volume of trading rose enormously. While trading of 5 million shares was considered a hectic day on the New York Stock Exchange in the 1960s, more than a thousand-million shares were exchanged on some days in 1997 and 1998. On the Nasdaq, such share days were routine by 1998.
Much of the increased activity was generated by so-called day traders who would typically buy and sell the same stock several times in one day, hoping to make quick profits on short-term swings. These traders were among the growing legions of persons using the Internet to do their trading. In early 1999, 13 percent of all stock trades by individuals and 25 percent of individual transactions in securities of all kinds were occurring over the Internet.
With the greater volume came greater volatility. Swings of more than 100 points a day occurred with increasing frequency, and the circuit-breaker mechanism was triggered on October 27, 1997, when the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 554.26 points. Another big fall -- 512.61 points -- occurred on August 31, 1998. But by then, the market had climbed so high that the declines amounted to only about 7 percent of the overall value of stocks, and investors stayed in the market, which quickly rebounded.
How Stock Prices Are Determined
Stock prices are set by a combination of factors that no analyst can consistently understand or predict. In general, economists say, they reflect the long-term earnings potential of companies. Investors are attracted to stocks of companies they expect will earn substantial profits in the future; because many people wish to buy stocks of such companies, prices of these stocks tend to rise. On the other hand, investors are reluctant to purchase stocks of companies that face bleak earnings prospects; because fewer people wish to buy and more wish to sell these stocks, prices fall.
When deciding whether to purchase or sell stocks, investors consider the general business climate and outlook, the financial condition and prospects of the individual companies in which they are considering investing, and whether stock prices relative to earnings already are above or below traditional norms. Interest rate trends also influence stock prices significantly. Rising interest rates tend to depress stock prices -- partly because they can foreshadow a general slowdown in economic activity and corporate profits, and partly because they lure investors out of the stock market and into new issues of interest-bearing investments. Falling rates, conversely, often lead to higher stock prices, both because they suggest easier borrowing and faster growth, and because they make new interest-paying investments less attractive to investors.
A number of other factors complicate matters, however. For one thing, investors generally buy stocks according to their expectations about the unpredictable future, not according to current earnings. Expectations can be influenced by a variety of factors, many of them not necessarily rational or justified. As a result, the short-term connection between prices and earnings can be tenuous.
Momentum also can distort stock prices. Rising prices typically woo more buyers into the market, and the increased demand, in turn, drives prices higher still. Speculators often add to this upward pressure by purchasing shares in the expectation they will be able to sell them later to other buyers at even higher prices. Analysts describe a continuous rise in stock prices as a "bull" market. When speculative fever can no longer be sustained, prices start to fall. If enough investors become worried about falling prices, they may rush to sell their shares, adding to downward momentum. This is called a "bear" market.
Stocks, commodities, and markets
Capital markets in the United States provide the lifeblood of capitalism. Companies turn to them to raise funds needed to finance the building of factories, office buildings, airplanes, trains, ships, telephone lines, and other assets; to conduct research and development; and to support a host of other essential corporate activities. Much of the money comes from such major institutions as pension funds, insurance companies, banks, foundations, and colleges and universities. Increasingly, it comes from individuals as well. As noted in chapter 3, more than 40 percent of U.S. families owned common stock in the mid-1990s.
Very few investors would be willing to buy shares in a company unless they knew they could sell them later if they needed the funds for some other purpose. The stock market and other capital markets allow investors to buy and sell stocks continuously.
The markets play several other roles in the American economy as well. They are a source of income for investors. When stocks or other financial assets rise in value, investors become wealthier; often they spend some of this additional wealth, bolstering sales and promoting economic growth. Moreover, because investors buy and sell shares daily on the basis of their expectations for how profitable companies will be in the future, stock prices provide instant feedback to corporate executives about how investors judge their performance.
Stock values reflect investor reactions to government policy as well. If the government adopts policies that investors believe will hurt the economy and company profits, the market declines; if investors believe policies will help the economy, the market rises. Critics have sometimes suggested that American investors focus too much on short-term profits; often, these analysts say, companies or policy-makers are discouraged from taking steps that will prove beneficial in the long run because they may require short-term adjustments that will depress stock prices. Because the market reflects the sum of millions of decisions by millions of investors, there is no good way to test this theory.
In any event, Americans pride themselves on the efficiency of their stock market and other capital markets, which enable vast numbers of sellers and buyers to engage in millions of transactions each day. These markets owe their success in part to computers, but they also depend on tradition and trust -- the trust of one broker for another, and the trust of both in the good faith of the customers they represent to deliver securities after a sale or to pay for purchases. Occasionally, this trust is abused. But during the last half century, the federal government has played an increasingly important role in ensuring honest and equitable dealing. As a result, markets have thrived as continuing sources of investment funds that keep the economy growing and as devices for letting many Americans share in the nation's wealth.
To work effectively, markets require the free flow of information. Without it, investors cannot keep abreast of developments or gauge, to the best of their ability, the true value of stocks. Numerous sources of information enable investors to follow the fortunes of the market daily, hourly, or even minute-by-minute. Companies are required by law to issue quarterly earnings reports, more elaborate annual reports, and proxy statments to tell stockholders how they are doing. In addition, investors can read the market pages of daily newspapers to find out the price at which particular stocks were traded during the previous trading session. They can review a variety of indexes that measure the overall pace of market activity; the most notable of these is the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA), which tracks 30 prominent stocks. Investors also can turn to magazines and newsletters devoted to analyzing particular stocks and markets. Certain cable television programs provide a constant flow of news about movements in stock prices. And now, investors can use the Internet to get up-to-the-minute information about individual stocks and even to arrange stock transactions.
The Stock Exchanges
There are thousands of stocks, but shares of the largest, best-known, and most actively traded corporations generally are listed on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE). The exchange dates its origin back to 1792, when a group of stockbrokers gathered under a buttonwood tree on Wall Street in New York City to make some rules to govern stock buying and selling. By the late 1990s, the NYSE listed some 3,600 different stocks. The exchange has 1,366 members, or "seats," which are bought by brokerage houses at hefty prices and are used for buying and selling stocks for the public. Information travels electronically between brokerage offices and the exchange, which requires 200 miles (320 kilometers) of fiber-optic cable and 8,000 phone connections to handle quotes and orders.
How are stocks traded? Suppose a schoolteacher in California wants to take an ocean cruise. To finance the trip, she decides to sell 100 shares of stock she owns in General Motors Corporation. So she calls her broker and directs him to sell the shares at the best price he can get. At the same time, an engineer in Florida decides to use some of his savings to buy 100 GM shares, so he calls his broker and places a "buy" order for 100 shares at the market price. Both brokers wire their orders to the NYSE, where their representatives negotiate the transaction. All this can occur in less than a minute. In the end, the schoolteacher gets her cash and the engineer gets his stock, and both pay their brokers a commission. The transaction, like all others handled on the exchange, is carried out in public, and the results are sent electronically to every brokerage office in the nation.
Stock exchange "specialists" play a crucial role in the process, helping to keep an orderly market by deftly matching buy and sell orders. If necessary, specialists buy or sell stock themselves when there is a paucity of either buyers or sellers.
The smaller American Stock Exchange, which lists numerous energy industry-related stocks, operates in much the same way and is located in the same Wall Street area as the New York exchange. Other large U.S. cities host smaller, regional stock exchanges.
The largest number of different stocks and bonds traded are traded on the National Association of Securities Dealers Automated Quotation system, or Nasdaq. This so-called over-the-counter exchange, which handles trading in about 5,240 stocks, is not located in any one place; rather, it is an electronic communications network of stock and bond dealers. The National Association of Securities Dealers, which oversees the over-the-counter market, has the power to expel companies or dealers that it determines are dishonest or insolvent. Because many of the stocks traded in this market are from smaller and less stable companies, the Nasdaq is considered a riskier market than either of the major stock exchanges. But it offers many opportunities for investors. By the 1990s, many of the fastest growing high-technology stocks were traded on the Nasdaq.
Commodities and Other Futures
Commodity "futures" are contracts to buy or sell certain certain goods at set prices at a predetermined time in the future. Futures traditionally have been linked to commodities such as wheat, livestock, copper, and gold, but in recent years growing amounts of futures also have been tied to foreign currencies or other financial assets as well. They are traded on about a dozen commodity exchanges in the United States, the most prominent of which include the Chicago Board of Trade, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, and several exchanges in New York City. Chicago is the historic center of America's agriculture-based industries. Overall, futures activity rose to 417 million contracts in 1997, from 261 million in 1991.
Commodities traders fall into two broad categories: hedgers and speculators. Hedgers are business firms, farmers, or individuals that enter into commodity contracts to be assured access to a commodity, or the ability to sell it, at a guaranteed price. They use futures to protect themselves against unanticipated fluctuations in the commodity's price. Thousands of individuals, willing to absorb that risk, trade in commodity futures as speculators. They are lured to commodity trading by the prospect of making huge profits on small margins (futures contracts, like many stocks, are traded on margin, typically as low as 10 to 20 percent on the value of the contract).
Speculating in commodity futures is not for people who are averse to risk. Unforeseen forces like weather can affect supply and demand, and send commodity prices up or down very rapidly, creating great profits or losses. While professional traders who are well versed in the futures market are most likely to gain in futures trading, it is estimated that as many as 90 percent of small futures traders lose money in this volatile market.
Commodity futures are a form of "derivative" -- complex instruments for financial speculation linked to underlying assets. Derivatives proliferated in the 1990s to cover a wide range of assets, including mortgages and interest rates. This growing trade caught the attention of regulators and members of Congress after some banks, securities firms, and wealthy individuals suffered big losses on financially distressed, highly leveraged funds that bought derivatives, and in some cases avoided regulatory scrutiny by registering outside the United States.
A Nation of Investors
An unprecedented boom in the stock market, combined with the ease of investing in stocks, led to a sharp increase in public participation in securities markets during the 1990s. The annual trading volume on the New York Stock Exchange, or "Big Board," soared from 11,400 million shares in 1980 to 169,000 million shares in 1998. Between 1989 and 1995, the portion of all U.S. households owning stocks, directly or through intermediaries like pension funds, rose from 31 percent to 41 percent.
Public participation in the market has been greatly facilitated by mutual funds, which collect money from individuals and invest it on their behalf in varied portfolios of stocks. Mutual funds enable small investors, who may not feel qualified or have the time to choose among thousands of individual stocks, to have their money invested by professionals. And because mutual funds hold diversified groups of stocks, they shelter investors somewhat from the sharp swings that can occur in the value of individual shares.
There are dozens of kinds of mutual funds, each designed to meet the needs and preferences of different kinds of investors. Some funds seek to realize current income, while others aim for long-term capital appreciation. Some invest conservatively, while others take bigger chances in hopes of realizing greater gains. Some deal only with stocks of specific industries or stocks of foreign companies, and others pursue varying market strategies. Overall, the number of funds jumped from 524 in 1980 to 7,300 by late 1998.
Attracted by healthy returns and the wide array of choices, Americans invested substantial sums in mutual funds during the 1980s and 1990s. At the end of the 1990s, they held $5.4 trillion in mutual funds, and the portion of U.S. households holding mutual fund shares had increased to 37 percent in 1997 from 6 percent in 1979.