A share of a stock represents ownership in the company that the share is issued for. Share ownership entitles the investor to share in the profitability of the company (or lack thereof) as well as a say in company matters put to a vote of investors. Stock investors purchase shares issued by corporations in hopes that the company will become more valuable through increased profits and business prospects.
One share of a corporation may represent different percentages of total company ownership based on the number of shares outstanding for each particular corporation. For instance, if there are 10,000 shares outstanding for a given corporation, one share represents ownership of 1/10,000 of the company, and the shareholder has 1/10,000 of the total vote in shareholder votes on company matters. If a shareholder owns 5,000 out of 10,000 total shares, they would own 50% of the company and have 50% voting rights.
Shares bought and sold on the stock market represent true ownership of a corporation, and entitles owners to the benefits and pitfalls of ownership. A nice perk for investors of publicly traded corporations is that while they are entitled to share in the upside if company profits soar, an investor can not lose more than his or her investment if the company goes bankrupt. In other words, owners of shares are not required to pay back company debts personally if the corporation can not meet its debt obligations.
Some people think of a share as something intangible that goes up and down in price almost randomly. The reality is this is far from the truth. The price of shares is based on buying and selling, most of which is is performed by large institutions like hedge funds and mutual funds. They decide to buy and sell based on exhaustive research and financial modeling of all available information on a corporation’s current profitability, current and project future asset values, and future profitability estimates and potential. The price of a share, and the value represented by the share is no arbitrary matter.
The ability to break a corporation into many shares which can be sold to many investors has allowed owners of large companies to sell their companies, which would otherwise be too large to purchase for any single investor. It has allowed average citizens to partake in the benefits of company ownership when they otherwise would not be able to, and this investment propagates economic growth, allowing companies to use investor money to expand operations and hire additional workers. When a company first breaks itself into publicly traded shares, it is said to have an IPO or initial public offering. When a company issues additional equity to the public after an IPO this is known as a secondary offering.
A trader should never lose sight of the fact that while their ownership may be short term, the instruments they are trading represent real tangible value, often in some of the world’s largest corporations.