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I am just learning about finances (only 14 years old) and have heard about Stocks and Bonds and I would like to know the difference between these two things and wonder why would I invest in one or the other?

I'm sorry if this seems basic, but I am just learning and did not see the answer already posted on this site.

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3 Answers 3

up vote 25 down vote accepted

WilliamKF explained it pretty well, but I want to put it in a more simplistic form:

  1. Stock : You own certain part of the company. The value of the stock derives from the value of the company.
  2. Bond : You lend money to the company. Company owes you money, but you don't own a part in it. The value of the bond derives from the current rates, remaining payments on the loan, and company's ability to make them.
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6  
+1 for an answer my inner 14 year old understood. –  JoeTaxpayer Aug 31 '11 at 1:13
    
Maybe we could say, "perceived" value of the company? –  Andy Wiesendanger Aug 31 '11 at 18:59
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@Andy - no, the actual value of the company. The value of the company is determined by, amongst other factors, expectations and perceptions, but the value of the stock is derived directly from the value the investors give to the company. It's not perceived, it's actual, the money you pay for the stock is real money, not a perception. –  littleadv Aug 31 '11 at 19:47
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A bond can also by issued by a city, state, or national government, not just a company. S&P's infamous downgrading was a downgrade of U.S. government bonds. –  xpda Sep 2 '11 at 4:49

A stock is an ownership interest in a company. There can be multiple classes of shares, but to simplify, assuming only one class of shares, a company issues some number of shares, let's say 1,000,000 shares and you can buy shares of the company. If you own 1,000 shares in this example, you would own one one-thousandth of the company. Public companies have their shares traded on the open market and the price varies as demand for the stock comes and goes relative to people willing to sell their shares. You typically buy stock in a company because you believe the company is going to prosper into the future and thus the value of its stock should rise in the open market.

A bond is an indebted interest in a company. A company issues bonds to borrow money at an interest rate specified in the bond issuance and makes periodic payments of principal and interest. You buy bonds in a company to lend the company money at an interest rate specified in the bond because you believe the company will be able to repay the debt per the terms of the bond. The value of a bond as traded on the open exchange varies as the prevailing interest rates vary. If you buy a bond for $1,000 yielding 5% interest and interest rates go up to 10%, the value of your bond in the open market goes down so that the payment terms of 5% on $1,000 matches hypothetical terms of 10% on a lesser principal amount. Whatever lesser principal amount at the new rate would lead to the same payment terms determines the new market value. Alternatively, if interest rates go down, the current value of your bond increases on the open market to make it appear as if it is yielding a lower rate. Regardless of the market value, the company continues to pay interest on the original debt per its terms, so you can always hold onto a bond and get the original promised interest as long as the company does not go bankrupt.

So in summary, bonds tend to be a safer investment that offers less potential return. However, this is not always the case, since if interest rates skyrocket, your bond's value will plummet, although you could just hold onto them and get the low rate originally promised.

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In a sentence, stocks are a share of equity in the company, while bonds are a share of credit to the company.

When you buy one share of stock, you own a (typically infinitesimal) percentage of the company. You are usually entitled to a share of the profits of that company, and/or to participate in the business decisions of that company. A particular type of stock may or may not pay dividends, which is the primary way companies share profits with their stockholders (the other way is simply by increasing the company's share value by being successful and thus desirable to investors). A stock also may or may not allow you to vote on company business; you may hear about companies buying 20% or 30% "interests" in other companies; they own that percentage of the company, and their vote on company matters is given that same weight in the total voting pool. Typically, a company offers two levels of stocks: "Common" stock usually has voting rights attached, and may pay dividends. "Preferred" stock usually gives up the voting rights, but pays a higher dividend percentage (maybe double or triple that of common stock) and may have payment guarantees (if a promised dividend is missed in one quarter and then paid in the next, the preferred stockholders get their dividend for the past and present quarters before the common shareholders see a penny). Governments and non-profits are typically prohibited from selling their equity; if a government sold stock it would basically be taxing everyone and then paying back stockholders, while non-profit organizations have no profits to pay out as dividends.

Bonds, on the other hand, are a slice of the company's debt load. Think of bonds as kind of like a corporate credit card. When a company needs a lot of cash, it will sell bonds. A single bond may be worth $10, $100, or $1000, depending on the investor market being targeted. This is the amount the company will pay the bondholder at the end of the term of the bond. These bonds are bought by investors on the open market for less than their face value, and the company uses the cash it raises for whatever purpose it wants, before paying off the bondholders at term's end (usually by paying each bond at face value using money from a new package of bonds, in effect "rolling over" the debt to the next cycle, similar to you carrying a balance on your credit card). The difference between the cost and payoff is the "interest charge" on this slice of the loan, and can be expressed as a percentage of the purchase price over the remaining term of the bond, as its "yield" or "APY". For example, a bond worth $100 that was sold on Jan 1 for $85 and is due to be paid on Dec 31 of the same year has an APY of (15/85*100) = 17.65%. Typically, yields for highly-rated companies are more like 4-6%; a bond that would yield 17% is very risky and indicates a very low bond rating, so-called "junk status".

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Also, bondholders get priority in repayment in the event of a bankruptcy. Stockholders get bupkus. Unless the company is GM. –  DaveyNC Sep 2 '11 at 0:13

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