If you’re not well-versed in the basics of the stock market, the words and numbers spewing from CNBC or the markets section of your favorite newspaper can border on gibberish.
Phrases like “earnings movers” and “intraday highs” don’t mean much to the average investor, and in many cases, they shouldn’t. If you’re in it for the long term — with, say, a portfolio of mutual funds geared toward retirement — you don’t need to worry about this kind of stock trading information, or about the flashes of red or green that cross the bottom of your TV screen. You can get by just fine without understanding the stock market much at all.
But if you want to learn how to trade stocks — and survive doing so — you do need to understand some basic information about stocks and the stock market.
Stock market basics
The stock market is made up of exchanges, like the New York Stock Exchange and the Nasdaq. Stocks are listed on a specific exchange, which brings buyers and sellers together and acts as a market for the shares of those stocks. The exchange tracks the supply and demand — and directly related, the price — of each stock. (Need to back up a bit? Read our explainer about the ins and outs of stocks.)
You place your stock trades through the broker, which then deals with the exchange on your behalf.
But this isn’t your typical market, and you can’t show up and pick your shares off a shelf the way you select produce at the grocery store. Individual traders are typically represented by a broker — these days, that’s often an online broker. You place your stock trades through the broker, which then deals with the exchange on your behalf. (See our analysis of the best online stock brokers for recommendations on this front.)
The NYSE and the Nasdaq are open from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Eastern, with premarket and after-hours trading sessions also available, depending on your broker.
Understanding the stock market indexes
When people refer to the stock market being up or down, they’re generally referring to one of the major market indexes.
A market index tracks the performance of a group of stocks, which either represents the market as a whole or a specific sector of the market, like technology or retail companies. You’re likely to hear most about the Standard & Poor’s 500, the Nasdaq composite and the Dow Jones Industrial Average; they are often used as proxies for the performance of the overall market.
Investors use indexes to benchmark the performance of their own portfolios and, in some cases, to inform their stock trading decisions. You can also invest in an entire index through index funds and exchange-traded funds, or ETFs, which track a specific index or sector of the market. Read more about ETFs here.
Bull markets vs. bear markets
Neither is an animal you’d want to run into on a hike, but the market has picked the bear as the true symbol of fear: A bear market means stock prices are falling — thresholds vary, but generally to the tune of 20% or more — across several of the indexes referenced earlier.
Younger investors may be familiar with the term bear market but unfamiliar with the experience: We’ve been in a bull market — with rising prices, the opposite of a bear market — since March 2009. That makes it the longest bull run in history.
It came out of the Great Recession, however, and that’s how bulls and bears tend to go: Bull markets are followed by bear markets, and vice versa, with both often signaling the start of larger economic patterns. In other words, a bull market typically means investors are confident, which indicates economic growth. A bear market shows investors are pulling back, indicating the economy may do so as well.
Bull markets are followed by bear markets, and vice versa, with both often signaling the start of larger economic patterns.
The good news is that the average bull market far outlasts the average bear market, which is why over the long term you can grow your money by investing in stocks.
The S&P 500, which holds 500 of the largest stocks in the U.S., has historically returned an average of around 7% annually, when you factor in reinvested dividends and adjust for inflation. That means if you invested $1,000 30 years ago, you could have around $7,600 today.
Stock market crash vs. correction
The year 2017 enjoyed a five-decade low in stock market volatility, meaning the market made fewer dramatic shifts in value. Those calm waters ended last February when the market dropped 10% in value.
While some investors feared a market crash, the February drop was a market correction — a term that means the market dropped 10%. The current bull market has stumbled through five corrections before continuing its uphill climb.
A stock market crash is a sudden, very sharp drop in stock prices, like in October 1987 when stocks plunged 23% in a single day. While these crashes can herald a bear market, remember what we mentioned above: Most bull markets last longer than bear markets — which means stock markets tend to rise in value over time.
The importance of diversification
You can’t avoid bear markets as an investor. What you can avoid is the risk that comes from an undiversified portfolio. Individual stocks frequently fizzle to a lifetime loss of 100%, according to a recent working paper by Arizona State University professor Hendrik Bessembinder.
Diversification helps protect your portfolio from inevitable market setbacks. If you throw all of your money into one company, you’re banking on success that can quickly be halted by regulatory issues, poor leadership or an E. coli outbreak. To smooth out that company-specific risk, investors diversify by pooling multiple kinds of stocks together, balancing out the inevitable losers and eliminating the risk that one company’s contaminated beef will wipe out your entire portfolio.
» Learn more: How to invest in stocks
But building a diversified portfolio of individual stocks takes a lot of time, patience and research. The alternative is a mutual fund, the aforementioned ETF or an index fund. These hold a basket of investments, so you’re automatically diversified. An S&P 500 ETF, for example, would aim to mirror the performance of the S&P 500 by investing in the 500 companies in that index.
The good news is you can combine individual stocks and funds in a single portfolio. One suggestion: Dedicate 10% or less of your portfolio to selecting a few stocks you believe in, and put the rest into index funds.
Ready to get started? The brokers below offer access to both individual stocks and funds.
This survey was conducted online within the United States by The Harris Poll on behalf of NerdWallet from June 14-18, 2018, among 2,024 U.S. adults ages 18 and older, among whom 787 were invested in in the stock market during at least one of the past five financial downturns. This online survey is not based on a probability sample and therefore no estimate of theoretical sampling error can be calculated. For complete survey methodology, including weighting variables and subgroup sample sizes, please contact Megan Katz at email@example.com.