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Types of Stock

Common and Preferred Stock

You can buy two kinds of stock. All publicly traded companies issue common stock. Some companies also issue preferred stock, which exposes you to somewhat less risk of losing money, but also provides less potential for total return. Your total return includes any income you receive from an investment plus any change in its value.

If you hold common stock you're in a position to share in the company's success or feel the lack of it. The share price rises and falls all the time—sometimes by just a few cents and sometimes by several dollars—reflecting investor demand and the state of the markets. There are no price ceilings, so it's possible for shares to double or triple or more over time—though they could also lose value. The issuing company may pay dividends, but it isn't required to do so. If it does, the amount of the dividend isn't guaranteed, and it could be cut or eliminated altogether—though companies may be reluctant to do either if they believe it will send a bad message about the company's financial health.

Holders of preferred stock, on the other hand, are usually guaranteed a dividend payment and their dividends are always paid out before dividends on common stock. So if you're investing mostly for income—in this case, dividends—preferred stock may be attractive. But, unlike common stock dividends, which may increase if the company's profit rises, preferred dividends are fixed. In addition, the price of preferred stock doesn't move as much as common stock prices. This means that while preferred stock doesn't lose much value even during a downturn in the stock market, it doesn't increase much either, even if the price of the common stock soars. So if you're looking for capital gains, owning preferred stock may limit your potential profit.

Another point of difference between common stock and preferred stock has to do with what happens if the company fails. In that event, there's a priority list for a company's obligations, and obligations to preferred stockholders must be met before those to common stockholders. On the other hand, preferred stockholders are lower on the list of investors to be reimbursed than bondholders are.

Classes of Stock

In addition to the choice of common or preferred stock, certain companies may offer a choice of publicly traded share classes, typically designated by letters of the alphabet—often A and B. For example, a company may offer a separate class of stock for one of its divisions which itself was perhaps a well-known, formerly independent company that has been acquired. In other cases, a company may issue different share classes that trade at different prices and have different dividend policies.

When a company has dual share classes, though, it's more common for one share class to be publicly traded and the other to be nontraded. Nontraded shares are generally reserved for company founders or current management. There are often restrictions on selling these shares, and they tend to have what's known as super voting power. This makes it possible for insiders to own less than half of the total shares of a company but control the outcome of issues that are put to a shareholder vote, such as a decision to sell the company.

Understanding Various Ways Stocks Are Described

In addition to the distinctions a company might establish for its shares—such as common or preferred—industry experts often group stocks generally into categories, sometimes called subclasses. Common subclasses, explained in greater detail below, focus on the company's size, type, performance during market cycles, and potential for short- and long-term growth.

Each subclass has its own characteristics and is subject to specific external pressures that affect the performance of the stocks within that subclass at any given time. Since each individual stock fits into one or more subclasses, its behavior is subject to a variety of factors.

Market Capitalization

You'll frequently hear companies referred to as large-cap, mid-cap, and small-cap. These descriptors refer to market capitalization, also known as market cap and sometimes shortened to just capitalization. Market cap is one measure of a company's size. More specifically, it's the dollar value of the company, calculated by multiplying the number of outstanding shares by the current market price.

There are no fixed cutoff points for large-, mid-, or small-cap companies, but you may see a small-cap company valued at less than $2 billion, mid-cap companies between $2 billion and $10 billion, and large-cap companies over $10 billion—or the numbers may be twice those amounts. You might also hear about micro-cap companies, which are even smaller than other small-cap companies.

Larger companies tend to be less vulnerable to the ups and downs of the economy than smaller ones—but even the most venerable company can fail. Larger companies typically have larger financial reserves, and can therefore absorb losses more easily and bounce back more quickly from a bad year. At the same time, smaller companies may have greater potential for fast growth in economic boom times than larger companies. Even so, this generalization is no guarantee that any particular large-cap company will weather a downturn well, or that any particular small-cap company will or won't thrive.

Industry and Sector

Companies are subdivided by industry or sector. A sector is a large section of the economy, such as industrial companies, utility companies, or financial companies. Industries, which are more numerous, are part of a specific sector. For example, banks are an industry within the financial sector.

Frequently, events in the economy or the business environment can affect an entire industry. For example, it's possible that high gas prices could lower the profits of transportation and delivery companies. A new rule changing the review process for prescription drugs could affect the profitability of all pharmaceutical companies.

Sometimes an entire industry might be in the midst of an exciting period of innovation and expansion, and becomes popular with investors. Other times that same industry could be stagnant and have little investor appeal. Like the stock market as a whole, sectors and industries tend to go through cycles, providing strong performance in some periods and disappointing performance in others.

Part of creating and maintaining a strong stock portfolio is evaluating which sectors and industries you should be invested in at any given time. Having made that decision, you should always evaluate individual companies within a sector or industry you've identified to focus on the ones that seem to be the best investment choices.

Defensive and Cyclical

Stocks can also be subdivided into defensive and cyclical stocks. The difference is in the way their profits, and therefore their stock prices, tend to respond to the relative strength or weakness of the economy as a whole.

Defensive stocks are in industries that offer products and services that people need, regardless of how well the overall economy is doing. For example, most people, even in hard times, will continue filling their medical prescriptions, using electricity, and buying groceries. The continuing demand for these necessities can keep certain industries strong even during a weak economic cycle.

In contrast, some industries, such as travel and luxury goods, are very sensitive to economic up-and-downs. The stock of companies in these industries, known as cyclicals, may suffer decreased profits and tend to lose market value in times of economic hardship, as people try to cut down on unnecessary expenses. But their share prices can rebound sharply when the economy gains strength, people have more discretionary income to spend, and their profits rise enough to create renewed investor interest.

Growth and Value

A common investment strategy for picking stocks is to focus on either growth or value stocks, or to seek a mixture of the two since their returns tend to follow a cycle of strength and weakness.

Growth stocks, as the name implies, are issued by companies that are expanding, sometimes quite quickly but in other cases over a longer period of time. Typically, these are young companies in fairly new industries that are rapidly expanding.

Growth stocks aren't always new companies, though. They can also be companies that have been around for some time but are poised for expansion, which could be due to any number of things, such as technological advances, a shift in strategy, movement into new markets, acquisitions, and so on.

Because growth companies often receive intense media and investor attention, their stock prices may be higher than their current profits seem to warrant. That's because investors are buying the stock based on potential for future earnings, not on a history of past results. If the stock fulfills expectations, even investors who pay high prices may realize a profit. Since companies may take big risks to expand, however, growth stocks may be very volatile, or subject to rapid price swings. For example, a company's new products may not be a hit, there may be unforeseen difficulty doing business in new countries, or the company may find itself saddled with major debt in a period of rising interest rates. As always with investing, the greater the potential for an outstanding return, the higher the risk of loss.

When a growth stock investment provides a positive return, it's usually as a result of price improvement—the stock price moves up from where the investor originally bought it—not because of dividends. Indeed, a key feature of most growth stocks is an absence of dividend payments to investors. Instead, company managers tend to plow gains directly back into the company.

Value stocks, in contrast, are solid investments selling at what seem to be low prices given their history and market share. If you buy a value stock, it's because you believe that it's worth more than its current price. You might look for value in older, more established industries, which tend not to get as much press as newer industries. One of the big risks in buying value stocks, also known as undervalued stocks, is that it's possible that investors are avoiding a company and its stock for good reasons, and that the price is a fairer reflection of its value than you think.

On the other hand, if you deliberately buy stocks that are out of fashion and sell stocks that other investors are buying—in other words, you invest against the prevailing opinion—you're considered a contrarian investor. There can be rewards to this style of investing, since by definition a contrarian investor buys stocks at low prices and sells them at high ones. However, contrarian investing requires considerable experience and a strong tolerance for risk, since it may involve buying the stocks of companies that are in trouble and selling stocks of companies that other investors are favoring. Being a contrarian also takes patience, since the turnaround you expect may take a long time.