What is a share?

Discover how companies issue shares to investors in return for equity capital, which is invested into the business.

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Interested in investing in the ASX share market? Here, we answer a few simple questions, starting with the definition of a share and the rights of shareholders. And is there a difference between a share and a stock?

So, what is a share?

A share is a financial asset that represents partial ownership of a company. Shares are a form of equity security that entitle holders to a stake in the financial benefits of company ownership.

Companies issue shares to investors in return for equity capital, which is invested into the business. Unlike debt, there is no requirement for a company to repay equity contributions. 

Instead, shareholders receive returns on their investments via the distribution of company profits. Shareholders can also make capital gains if they sell their shares for more than what they purchased them for. 

What are the rights of shareholders? 

Shareholders are entitled to vote at the company's annual general meeting and elect its board of directors, who control the company. The board selects the managers who run the company. This ensures the company's ownership and management are kept separate. 

Shareholders have the right to vote on items that impact their shareholdings, for example, a merger or takeover, as well as executive compensation packages. Under the two-strikes rule, the board may be voted out of office if shareholders of companies listed on the ASX vote down a company's executive remuneration package two years in a row. 

Shares have 'limited liability' legal status, which means shareholders have no liability beyond the money paid for their shares. If the company fails, the most a shareholder can lose is the value of their shares. 

But because shares are a form of equity ownership, shareholder claims on the assets and income of a corporation rank behind the claims of creditors. This means that shareholders may not receive any money in the event of insolvency. 

Different types of shares 

Companies can issue different types of shares, such as ordinary and preference shares. 

Ordinary shares are the most common type of shares traded on the ASX. Ordinary shares entitle shareholders to vote at the annual general meeting and to share in company profits in the form of dividends

Preference shares are hybrid shares with debt and equity features. Preference shareholders are guaranteed a certain dividend return but often do not have the right to vote. 

Ordinary shares, by contrast, do not guarantee the payment of dividends. The company's board will decide when to declare a dividend and the amount per share. 

Ordinary shareholders have the right to the residual profits of the company, that is, any leftover profits after it pays all creditors and preference shareholders. 

If a company is not profitable, it may not declare dividends. Equally, the board may decide to reinvest profits into the business rather than pay them to shareholders as dividends. For investors seeking passive income, however, ASX shares with a strong history of dividend payments are an attractive option, and many also offer the benefit of franking credits

Ordinary shareholders are also entitled to any residual value if the company collapses, but they will be last in line. This means ordinary shares are higher risk than preferred shares or bonds

With higher risk, however, comes the potential to reap higher rewards. When a company makes a significant profit, the ordinary shareholders benefit most from the windfall, rather than creditors or preference shareholders who are paid a fixed amount. 

What's the difference between a share and a stock? 

The terms 'share' and 'stock' are often used interchangeably to refer to securities that represent ownership of companies. 

Of the two terms, stock is considered broader, generally referring to companies' ownership. Share refers to individual units of stock, that is, the actual amount of ownership of a specific company. 

For example, if an investor says, "I own BHP stock", you know they own a portion of BHP Group Ltd (ASX: BHP) equity. If the investor says, "I own 500 BHP shares", you know their exact ownership. 

This means a reference to shares can indicate investment size, whereas a reference to stock does not, alone, provide information on the size of the investment. 

Why are some shares cheaper than others? 

Most companies have shares, but only those listed on a stock exchange such as the ASX can be publicly traded. More than 2,000 companies have shares traded on the ASX, with share prices that range from cents to hundreds of dollars. 

Many factors can impact share prices, including the performance of the underlying business and broader economy and the supply and demand for the shares themselves. 

Fundamentally, the price of a share should reflect the current value of the future cash flows associated with that share. But the future is unknown, and investors have different opinions about what it will entail. Further, the intrinsic value of a share, as determined by its business fundamentals, may differ from its actual market price. 

Active investors believe the intrinsic value of shares is separate from their market price. They seek to outperform the market by buying shares they consider undervalued. 

On the other hand, passive investors tend to believe in the efficient market hypothesis, which provides that the intrinsic value of a share should be equal to its market price.  

A standard method used to value shares is to calculate the company's price-to-earnings ratio (P/E). This is equal to the share price divided by the company's earnings per share (EPS)

For example, if the share price is $100 and the company's EPS is $10, the PE ratio is 10x (i.e., the price is 10 times earnings). We can use the P/E ratio to compare different shares within and across industries. Whether an individual investor considers a particular P/E ratio to be good value will depend on that individual's objectives and investment style. 

Value investors tend to prefer lower P/E ratios, as this can indicate the market valuation of a share may be below its intrinsic value. Growth investors, on the other hand, are not averse to higher P/E ratios where they believe they are justified by the rate of earnings growth. 

Take the next steps to share investing

If you're interested in investing in shares, you can do plenty to educate yourself about the share market and inform your investment decisions. Your financial goals should guide these. 

One common goal is to achieve financial independence through investment. Whether you aim to build long-term wealth or secure passive income streams, investing in shares is a great way to pursue these goals.

This article contains general educational content only and does not take into account your personal financial situation. Before investing, your individual circumstances should be considered, and you may need to seek independent financial advice.

To the best of our knowledge, all information in this article is accurate as of time of posting. In our educational articles, a 'top share' is always defined by the largest market cap at the time of last update. On this page, neither the author nor The Motley Fool have chosen a 'top share' by personal opinion.

As always, remember that when investing, the value of your investment may rise or fall, and your capital is at risk.

Motley Fool contributor Katherine O'Brien has positions in BHP Group. The Motley Fool Australia's parent company Motley Fool Holdings Inc. has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool Australia has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. This article contains general investment advice only (under AFSL 400691). Authorised by Scott Phillips.