Understanding Bid and Ask Prices in Trading

The Bid/Ask Spread: What It Is and How to Use It

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When it comes to actually buying and selling shares of stock, the exchanges act more like flea markets than centers of financial sophistication. The scene can be chaotic and it's definitely fast-paced. You'll need a firm understanding of what's going on if you're going to excel at trading, and that means you must understand the bid and ask prices—what they mean and how to use them. 

Why Stock Prices Are Different 

Unlike with most things that consumers purchase, stock prices are set by both the buyer and the seller.

The buyer states how much he's willing to pay for the stock—this is the bid price—and the seller also has a price, which is known as the ask price.

It's the role of the stock exchanges and the whole broker/specialist system to facilitate the coordination of the bid and ask prices. This service doesn’t come without a price, however.

The Bid/Ask Pricing

You can see the bid and ask prices if you have access to the proper online pricing systems. The Nasdaq structures its pricing around the bid/ask.

You'll notice that the bid price and the ask price are never the same. The ask price is always a little higher than the bid price. What this means is you'll pay the ask price, which is the higher price, if you're buying the stock, and you'll receive the bid price, the lower price, if you are selling the stock

The Bid/Ask Spread

What happens to the difference between the two prices? This difference is called the spread and it's kept as profit by the broker/specialist who is handling the transaction.

In actuality, the spread goes to pay a number of fees in addition to the broker’s commission. Keep in mind that the broker's commission is not the same commission you'd pay to a retail broker.

Because prices move constantly, especially for actively traded stocks, you can’t know what price you'll get if you're a buyer or a seller unless you use specific market orders.

Other Options 

There are ways around the bid/ask spread, but most investors are better off sticking with this established system that works well, even if it does take a little ding out of your profit. Advanced strategies are for advanced, expert traders.

This isn't to say that you won't ever get to the point of using them and maybe even excelling with them, but you're probably better off sticking to basic rules when you're starting out and just getting your feet wet. Understanding is key and when you have that down and have witnessed how the market works time and again, you might consider branching out and experimenting on paper with other strategies before you jump in with both feet and a whole fistful of dollars.

Note: Always consult with a financial professional for the most up-to-date information and trends. This article is not investment advice and it is not intended as investment advice.