In general, to invest is to distribute money in the expectation of some benefit in the future - for example, investment in durable goods, in real estate by the service industry, in factories for manufacturing, in product development, and in research and development. However, this article focuses specifically on investment in financial assets.
In finance, the benefit from investment is called a return. The return may consist of a profit from the sale of property or an investment, or investment income including dividends, interests, rental income etc., or a combination of the two. The projected economic return is the appropriately discounted value of the future returns.
Investment in stocks, property, etc. in the hope of significant gain but with the risk of significant loss, i.e. speculation, involves a level of risk which is greater than most investors would generally consider justified by the expected return. An alternative characterization of speculation is its short-term, opportunistic nature.
In the early 1900s purchasers of stocks, bonds, and other securities were described in media, academia, and commerce as speculators. By the 1950s, the term investment had come to denote the more conservative end of the securities spectrum, while speculation was applied by financial brokers and their advertising agencies to higher risk securities much in vogue at that time. Since the last half of the 20th century, the terms speculation and speculator have specifically referred to higher risk ventures.
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The Code of Hammurabi (around 1700 BC) provided a legal framework for investment, establishing a means for the pledge of collateral by codifying debtor and creditor rights in regard to pledged land. Punishments for breaking financial obligations were not as severe as those for crimes involving injury or death.
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A value investor buys assets that they believe to be undervalued (and sells overvalued ones). To identify undervalued securities, a value investor uses analysis of the financial reports of the issuer to evaluate the security. Value investors employ accounting ratios, such as earnings per share and sales growth, to identify securities trading at prices below their worth.
The price to earnings ratio (P/E), or earnings multiple, is a particularly significant and recognized fundamental ratio, with a function of dividing the share price of stock, by its earnings per share. This will provide the value representing the sum investors are prepared to expend for each dollar of company earnings. This ratio is an important aspect, due to its capacity as measurement for the comparison of valuations of various companies. A stock with a lower P/E ratio will cost less per share than one with a higher P/E, taking into account the same level of financial performance; therefore, it essentially means a low P/E is the preferred option.
An instance in which the price to earnings ratio has a lesser significance is when companies in different industries are compared. For example, although it is reasonable for a telecommunications stock to show a P/E in the low teens, in the case of hi-tech stock, a P/E in the 40s range is not unusual. When making comparisons, the P/E ratio can give you a refined view of a particular stock valuation.
For investors paying for each dollar of a company's earnings, the P/E ratio is a significant indicator, but the price-to-book ratio (P/B) is also a reliable indication of how much investors are willing to spend on each dollar of company assets. In the process of the P/B ratio, the share price of a stock is divided by its net assets; any intangibles, such as goodwill, are not taken into account. It is a crucial factor of the price-to-book ratio, due to it indicating the actual payment for tangible assets and not the more difficult valuation of intangibles. Accordingly, the P/B could be considered a comparatively conservative metric.
Investments are often made indirectly through intermediary financial institutions. These intermediaries include pension funds, banks, and insurance companies. They may pool money received from a number of individual end investors into funds such as investment trusts, unit trusts, SICAVs, etc. to make large-scale investments. Each individual investor holds an indirect or direct claim on the assets purchased, subject to charges levied by the intermediary, which may be large and varied.
Investors famous for their success include Warren Buffett. In the March 2013 edition of Forbes magazine, Warren Buffett ranked number 2 in their Forbes 400 list. Buffett has advised in numerous articles and interviews that a good investment strategy is long term and choosing the right assets to invest in requires due diligence.
The investment principles of both of these investors have points in common with the Kelly criterion for money management. Numerous interactive calculators which use the Kelly criterion can be found online.
Free cash flow measures the cash a company generates which is available to its debt and equity investors, after allowing for reinvestment in working capital and capital expenditure. High and rising free cash flow therefore tend to make a company more attractive to investors.
The debt-to-equity ratio is an indicator of capital structure. A high proportion of debt, reflected in a high debt-to-equity ratio, tends to make a company's earnings, free cash flow, and ultimately the returns to its investors, more risky or volatile. Investors compare a company's debt-to-equity ratio with those of other companies in the same industry, and examine trends in debt-to-equity ratios and free cash flow.
An enhancement of the P/E ratio that could help you valuate a stock is the PEG (price-earnings-growth) ratio. As a rule of thumb, look for companies with a PEG close to 1.0, which implies that the market's expectations are based on realistic assumptions about the firm's growth prospects.
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