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How the Markets Work

Used with permission from The United States Securities and Exchange Commission.

Types of Brokerage Accounts

A cash account is a type of brokerage account in which the investor must pay the full amount for securities purchased. In a cash account, you are not allowed to borrow funds from your broker to pay for transactions in the account.

A margin account is a type of brokerage account in which your brokerage firm can lend you money to buy securities, with the securities in your portfolio serving as collateral for the loan. As with any other loan, you will incur interest costs when you buy securities on margin.

There are risks involved in purchasing securities on margin. For example, if you buy on margin and the value of your securities declines, your brokerage firm can require you to deposit cash or securities to your account immediately. It can also sell any of the securities in your account to cover any shortfall, without informing you in advance. The brokerage firm decides which of your securities to sell. Even if the brokerage firm notifies you that you have a certain number of days to cover the shortfall, it still may sell your securities before then. A brokerage firm may at any time change the threshold at which customers are subject to a margin call.

Types of Orders

The most common types of orders are market orders, limit orders, and stop-loss orders.

  • A market order is an order to buy or sell a security immediately. This type of order guarantees that the order will be executed, but does not guarantee the execution price. A market order generally will execute at or near the current bid (for a sell order) or ask (for a buy order) price. However, it is important for investors to remember that the last-traded price is not necessarily the price at which a market order will be executed.
  • A limit order is an order to buy or sell a security at a specific price or better. A buy limit order can only be executed at the limit price or lower, and a sell limit order can only be executed at the limit price or higher. Example: An investor wants to purchase shares of ABC stock for no more than $10. The investor could submit a limit order for this amount and this order will only execute if the price of ABC stock is $10 or lower.
  • A stop order, also referred to as a stop-loss order is an order to buy or sell a stock once the price of the stock reaches the specified price, known as the stop price. When the stop price is reached, a stop order becomes a market order.

A buy stop order is entered at a stop price above the current market price. Investors generally use a buy stop order to limit a loss or protect a profit on a stock that they have sold short. A sell stop order is entered at a stop price below the current market price. Investors generally use a sell stop order to limit a loss or protect a profit on a stock they own.

 

Stock Purchases: Long and Short

Having a “long” position in a security means that you own the security. Investors maintain “long” security positions in the expectation that the stock will rise in value in the future. The opposite of a “long” position is a “short” position.

A "short" position is generally the sale of a stock you do not own. Investors who sell short believe the price of the stock will decrease in value. If the price drops, you can buy the stock at the lower price and make a profit. If the price of the stock rises and you buy it back later at the higher price, you will incur a loss. Short selling is for the experienced investor.

 

Executing an Order

When you place an order to buy or sell stock, you might not think about where or how your broker will execute the trade. But where and how your order is executed can impact the overall cost of the transaction, including the price you pay for the stock. Here's what you should know about trade execution:

Trade Execution Isn’t Instantaneous

Many investors who trade through online brokerage accounts assume they have a direct connection to the securities markets, but they don't. When you push that enter key, your order is sent over the Internet to your broker -- who in turn decides which market to send it to for execution. A similar process occurs when you call your broker to place a trade.

While trade execution is usually seamless and quick, it does take time. And prices can change quickly, especially in fast-moving markets. Because price quotes are only for a specific number of shares, investors may not always receive the price they saw on their screen or the price their broker quoted over the phone. By the time your order reaches the market, the price of the stock could be slightly -- or very -- different.

SEC regulations do not require a trade to be executed within a set period of time. But if firms advertise their speed of execution, they must not exaggerate or fail to tell investors about the possibility of significant delays.

Your Broker Has Options for Executing Your Trade

Just as you have a choice of brokers, your broker generally has a choice of markets to execute your trade.

  • For a stock that is listed on an exchange, your broker may direct the order to that exchange, to another exchange, or to a firm called a "market maker."
  • A "market maker" is a firm that stands ready to buy or sell a stock listed on an exchange at publicly quoted prices. As a way to attract orders from brokers, some market makers will pay your broker for routing your order to them -- perhaps a penny or more per share. This is called “payment for order flow.”
  • For a stock that trades in an over-the-counter (OTC) market, your broker may send the order to an “OTC market maker.” Many OTC market makers also pay brokers for order flow.
  • Your broker may route your order -- especially a limit order -- to an electronic communications network (ECN) that automatically matches buy and sell orders at specified prices.
  • Your broker may decide to send your order to another division of your broker's firm to be filled out of the firm's own inventory. This is called “internalization.” In this way, your broker's firm may make money on the "spread" -- which is the difference between the price the firm paid for the security and the price at which the firm sells it to you.

Your Broker Has a Duty of “Best Execution”

Many firms use automated systems to handle the orders they receive from their customers. In deciding how to execute orders, your broker has a duty to seek the best execution that is reasonably available for its customers' orders. That means your broker must evaluate the orders it receives from all customers in the aggregate and periodically assess which competing markets, market makers, or ECNs offer the most favorable terms of execution.

The opportunity for "price improvement" is an important factor a broker should consider in executing its customers' orders. "Price improvement" is the opportunity, but not the guarantee, for an order to be executed at a better price than the current quote.

Of course, the additional time it takes some markets to execute orders may result in your getting a worse price than the current quote - especially in a fast-moving market. So, your broker is required to consider whether there is a trade-off between providing its customers' orders with the possibility, but not the guarantee, of better prices and the extra time it may take to do so.

You Have Options for Directing Trades

If for any reason you want to direct your trade to a particular exchange, market maker, or ECN, you may be able to call your broker and ask him or her to do this. But some brokers may charge for that service. Some brokers offer active traders the ability to direct orders to the market maker or ECN of their choice.