The stock market allows individual investors to own stakes in some of the world’s best companies, and that can be tremendously lucrative. In aggregate, stocks are a good long-term investment as long as they’re purchased at reasonable prices. For example, over time the S&P 500 has generated about a 10 percent annual return, including a nice cash dividend, too.
Investing in stocks also offers another nice tax advantage for long-term investors. As long as you don’t sell your stock, you won’t owe any tax on the gains. Only money that you receive, such as dividends, will be taxable. So you can hold your stock forever and never have to pay taxes on your gains.
However, if you do realize a gain by selling the stock, you’ll owe capital gains taxes on it. How long you held the stock will determine how it’s taxed. If you buy and sell the asset within a year, it will fall under short-term capital gains and will be taxed at your regular income tax rate. If you sell after you’ve held the asset a year, then you’ll pay the long-term capital gains rate, which is usually lower. If you record an investment loss, you can write that off your taxes or against your gains.
While the market as a whole has performed well, many stocks in the market don’t perform well and may even go bankrupt. These stocks are eventually worth zero, and they’re a total loss. On the other hand, some stocks such as Amazon and Apple have continued to soar for years, earning investors hundreds of times their initial investment.
So investors have two big ways to win in the stock market:
- Buy a stock fund based on an index, such as the S&P 500, and hold it to capture the index’s long-term return. However, its return can vary markedly, from down 30 percent in one year to up 30 percent in another. By buying an index fund, you’ll get the weighted average performance of the stocks in the index.
- Buy individual stocks and try to find the stocks that will outperform the average. However, this approach takes a tremendous amount of skill and knowledge, and it’s more risky than simply buying an index fund. However, if you can find an Apple or Amazon on the way up, your returns are likely going to be much higher than in an index fund.
Of course, you’ll need a brokerage account before you start investing in stocks. As you’re getting started, here are eight more guidelines for investing in the stock market.