What the Bull?

People in bespoke suits and dark polished shoes trade stories about bears and bulls as they grip their coffees and thumb through their BlackBerries. Have you ever wondered what they’re discussing?

When they mention bulls and bears, they aren’t chatting about some insane hunting expedition, but rather alluding to market trends. Bears and bulls are synonymous with investment culture. Monuments of the duo adorn the streets of financial districts the world around — from New York to Shanghai, with Frankfurt in between.

The etymology of the pair is unknown, but what they symbolize is universal. The bear signifies an ailing financial market, while the bull epitomizes prosperous market trends. When a bear attacks it swipes its claw downward, and so a bear market describes downward market movement. A bear market is sleepy and lethargic, just like the animal.
It moves slowly, prices are on a decline, and investors are losing money.

Unlike a bear, a bull attacks with its horns, jerking upwards.
Accordingly, a bull market characterizes upward market movement. A bull market is raging and dynamic. A bull market makes for happy investors because prices are on an increase and profits are being made.

A period during which a market is bullish is known as a “boom,” and the market is said to be booming. Conversely, when the market is going through a bearish bout, it is known as a “bust.”

The bulls and bears can even express investor types. A bear investor’s style is to manipulate a bear market to his or her advantage, turning a profit when everyone else is losing. They commonly accomplish this by utilizing a risky technique called short selling. In contrast, the more conventional style of investing is bullish. A bullish investor acquires a profit by investing in a stock that they intuitively feel will do well.

A stock is an intangible representation of a company at the stock market. A stock is identified and represented by a “ticker symbol.” This symbol is usually a one-to-four letter long abbreviation of the company’s name. In Asian markets the symbol may include numbers.

When an investor buys a stock they are essentially buying a piece of the company that issued the stock. How big that piece is depends upon the amount of shares owned, since shares are units of a stock/company. A share can cost as little as a few cents, to as much as hundreds or even thousands of dollars, depending upon the company.

Shares customarily carry voting power, which means that each share counts as one vote in company decisions. Traditionally, when an individual owns over 50 per cent of the shares in a company they are considered the owner of that company, but this isn’t always the case.

When a company sells shares of their stock, they acquire investors’ money. They use this money to grow their company, and if they are successful the value of their stock increases. On the flipside, if the company “flops” and is not profitable its stock value decreases. The company is not obligated to return the investor’s money, and the investor loses his or her investment.

This is why investing is such a fickle business, because an investor is essentially handing over their money to a company in the hopes the company will utilize it successfully. If a company accumulates a huge profit, which goes beyond their target, then they might choose to share this surplus with investors, by paying a dividend on each share.

The dividend can be thought of as a bonus, or a thank you to investors on behalf of the company for investing in them. A dividend is a percentage of the share’s price, usually one to two per cent. The percentage is determined by how generous the company is feeling. Dividends are usually paid out at the end of a fiscal quarter, or fiscal period.

A fiscal period, also called a fiscal year, is any 12-month span in the lifetime of a company. Fiscal years can start in any month and end 12 months later. For example, May 2010 to April 2011 can be considered a fiscal period. Not only do fiscal years make accounting and operations easier for companies, they also provide a fair medium to compare and contract each other in.

Now you know that those people’s musings aren’t gibberish, but rather spoken in the language of business. Go forth and jargon-drop with the best of them, discussing how 2010 is one-third way through its last quarter, or how you’d had a “bear” of a day.