Many people don’t understand the differences between stocks and bonds. It occurred to me recently that even those who invest in these types of securities through either personal investment accounts or retirement plans can’t really articulate what the differences are. I’ve noticed that people have a general idea- such as associating stocks more with risk and bonds more with safety, but that’s about the extent of it. While both are types of investments which can earn you money, they are different as night and day in terms of the potential risks and rewards.
When you buy a share of stock, you are actually taking ownership in the company in which you are investing. For example, consider the hypothetical example of Russell’s Fast Food Palace. If it were a publicly traded company divided into 1 million shares and you bought 1,000 of them, you’d be a .001% shareholder of the Fast Food Palace. As a result, you’d share in both the profits and losses of the company throughout the years. You’d probably want to pay attention to news that affects both the Fast Food market and the economy in general. One of the potential risks in buying 1,000 shares of the Fast Food Palace is that it will experience some sort of problem, such as people realizing fast food is very unhealthy. If this news was publicized enough, less people might come into the stores.
This could potentially decrease the company’s revenues and, ultimately, the stock price would decline. The opposite would be if my food became so popular that every airport in the United States decided to put a Fast Food Palace inside. This would be incredible news for shareholders because it would generate much more foot traffic, higher revenues, and higher profits.
A bond does not represent ownership in a corporation. Let’s say Russell’s Food Palace wanted to raise money to open 10 more stores, but they didn’t want to divide up the company any further. They might sell bonds instead of issuing stock. Rather than owning a piece of the company, the bondholder becomes a creditor of Russell’s Food Palace who will be paid back over the life of the bond.
The difference is that the return you will earn on your money as a bondholder is generally a fixed percentage such as 5% or 7% annually. If the bond lasts for 10 years, you will get interest each year for the 10 years, and then your principal investment returned to you at expiration date. If you buy a bond from a small, risky company, there is the possibility that the company will go under and you’ll never see some of your interest payments or principal investment ever again. This is rare however, and it’s more likely, in the short term, to lose money in the stock market than the bond market.
Which is better investment? Well, it totally depends on where you are in life and what your tolerance for risk is. I’d rather own something for a period of years in hope for growth, then lend somebody $20 and know I’m getting $25 back in 5 years. Thus, I would probably consider myself more of a stock investor. However, the bondholder may very well feel safer and more secure with his/her investment choice. The ideal long-term portfolio would probably have a little bit of each.
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