Very few investors would be willing to buy shares in a company unless they knew they could sell them later if they needed the funds for some other purpose. The stock market and other capital markets allow investors to buy and sell stocks continuously.
The markets play several other roles in the American economy as well. They are a source of income for investors. When stocks or other financial assets rise in value, investors become wealthier; often they spend some of this additional wealth, bolstering sales and promoting economic growth. Moreover, because investors buy and sell shares daily on the basis of their expectations for how profitable companies will be in the future, stock prices provide instant feedback to corporate executives about how investors judge their performance.
Stock values reflect investor reactions to government policy as well. If the government adopts policies that investors believe will hurt the economy and company profits, the market declines; if investors believe policies will help the economy, the market rises. Critics have sometimes suggested that American investors focus too much on short-term profits; often, these analysts say, companies or policy-makers are discouraged from taking steps that will prove beneficial in the long run because they may require short-term adjustments that will depress stock prices. Because the market reflects the sum of millions of decisions by millions of investors, there is no good way to test this theory.
In any event, Americans pride themselves on the efficiency of their stock market and other capital markets, which enable vast numbers of sellers and buyers to engage in millions of transactions each day. These markets owe their success in part to computers, but they also depend on tradition and trust -- the trust of one broker for another, and the trust of both in the good faith of the customers they represent to deliver securities after a sale or to pay for purchases. Occasionally, this trust is abused. But during the last half century, the federal government has played an increasingly important role in ensuring honest and equitable dealing. As a result, markets have thrived as continuing sources of investment funds that keep the economy growing and as devices for letting many Americans share in the nation's wealth.
To work effectively, markets require the free flow of information. Without it, investors cannot keep abreast of developments or gauge, to the best of their ability, the true value of stocks. Numerous sources of information enable investors to follow the fortunes of the market daily, hourly, or even minute-by-minute. Companies are required by law to issue quarterly earnings reports, more elaborate annual reports, and proxy statments to tell stockholders how they are doing. In addition, investors can read the market pages of daily newspapers to find out the price at which particular stocks were traded during the previous trading session. They can review a variety of indexes that measure the overall pace of market activity; the most notable of these is the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA), which tracks 30 prominent stocks. Investors also can turn to magazines and newsletters devoted to analyzing particular stocks and markets. Certain cable television programs provide a constant flow of news about movements in stock prices. And now, investors can use the Internet to get up-to-the-minute information about individual stocks and even to arrange stock transactions. ---
Next Article: The Stock Exchanges
This article is adapted from the book "Outline of the U.S. Economy" by Conte and Carr and has been adapted with permission from the U.S. Department of State.