Take the 2-minute tour ×
Personal Finance & Money Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for people who want to be financially literate. It's 100% free, no registration required.

In my online brokerage account, I want to buy a particular stock and I see :

Bid:  13.20 x200  	Ask:  13.27 x1,000

the current stock price is :

13.22

Can someone explain what the bid and ask prices mean relative to the current price? If I buy 1000 shares, why would I pay more?

share|improve this question
    
You would pay more simply because the available sellers that are going to sell to you are not willing to settle for less than 13.27. This 13.27 is not related to teh quantity 1000 in the way you interpret. Probably since the last trade at 13.22, some positive news came up and the seller is now demaning more. It could easily have been : Bid: 13.15 * 100, Ask: 13.18 * 1000 –  Victor123 Jan 23 at 14:54

3 Answers 3

The current stock price you're referring to is actually the price of the last trade. It is a historical price – but during market hours, that's usually mere seconds ago for very liquid stocks.

Whereas, the bid and ask are the best potential prices that buyers and sellers are willing to transact at: the bid for the buying side, and the ask for the selling side. But, think of the bid and ask prices you see as "tip of the iceberg" prices. That is:

The "Bid: 13.20 x200" is an indication that there are potential buyers bidding $13.20 for up to 200 shares. Their bids are the highest currently bid; and there are others in line behind with lower bid prices. So the "bid" you're seeing is actually the best bid price at that moment. If you entered a "market" order to sell more than 200 shares, part of your order would likely be filled at a lower price.

The "Ask: 13.27 x1,000" is an indication that there are potential sellers asking $13.27 for up to 1000 shares. Their ask prices are the lowest currently asked; and there are others in line behind with higher ask prices. So the "ask" you're seeing is the best asking price at that moment. If you entered a "market" order to buy more than 1000 shares, part of your order would likely be filled at a higher price.

A transaction takes place when either a potential buyer is willing to pay the asking price, or a potential seller is willing to accept the bid price, or else they meet in the middle if both buyers and sellers change their orders.

Note: There are primarily two kinds of stock exchanges. The one I just described is a typical order-driven matched bargain market, and perhaps the kind you're referring to.

The other kind is a quote-driven over-the-counter market where there is a market-maker, as JohnFx already mentioned. In those cases, the spread between the bid & ask goes to the market maker as compensation for making a market in a stock. For a liquid stock that is easy for the market maker to turn around and buy/sell to somebody else, the spread is small (narrow). For illiquid stocks that are harder to deal in, the spread is larger (wide) to compensate the market-maker having to potentially carry the stock in inventory for some period of time, during which there's a risk to him if it moves in the wrong direction.


Finally ... if you wanted to buy 1000 shares, you could enter a market order, in which case as described above you'll pay $13.27. If you wanted to buy your shares at no more than $13.22 instead, i.e. the so-called "current" price, then you would enter a limit order for 1000 shares at $13.22. And more to the point, your order would become the new highest-bid price (until somebody else accepts your bid for their shares.) Of course, there's no guarantee that with a limit order that you will get filled; your order could expire at the end of the day if nobody accepts your bid.

share|improve this answer
4  
Actually there is often significant "hidden" liquidity. The most common form is likely "iceberg" orders. Here, an order is entered, say, to buy 2000 shares, but it has a "max floor" of 200 - meaning to display at most 200 shares at a time. If I'm sold the 200 shares, the quote will automatically update to buy another 200 at the same price. So someone could sell me 1000 shares even though they think I only want to buy 200. Very often, if you enter a market order to sell more than the displayed quantity, you will be filled at the current bid price without moving into lower price levels. –  Jer May 23 '11 at 17:29
    
@Jer Thanks for the information on "iceberg" orders. Good to know! –  Chris W. Rea May 28 '11 at 8:03
1  
@ChrisW.Rea: Nice answer! Re: "if you wanted to buy 1000 shares, you could enter a market order, in which case as described above you'll pay $13.27." Did you mean "you'll pay $13.20" instead? –  Tim Jun 18 '12 at 20:26
2  
@Tim No, I did mean 13.27 as written. If you enter a market order to buy, you would pay somebody's asking price. Your "bid" in a market order is essentially "the lowest price somebody is currently asking". A market order does not limit the price, whereas a limit order does limit what you are willing to pay. –  Chris W. Rea Jun 18 '12 at 21:43

Both prices are quotes on a single share of stock.

The bid price is what buyers are willing to pay for it.
The ask price is what sellers are willing to take for it.

If you are selling a stock, you are going to get the bid price, if you are buying a stock you are going to get the ask price. The difference (or "spread") goes to the broker/specialist that handles the transaction.

share|improve this answer

As others have stated, the current price is simply the last price at which the security traded. For any given tick, however, there are many bid-ask prices because securities can trade on multiple exchanges and between many agents on a single exchange. This is true for both types of exchanges that Chris mentioned in his answer.

Chris' answer is pretty thorough in explaining how the two types of exchanges work, so I'll just add some minor details. In exchanges like NASDAQ, there are multiple market makers for most relatively liquid securities, which theoretically introduces competition between them and therefore lowers the bid-ask spreads that traders face. Although this results in the market makers earning less compensation for their risk, they hope to make up the difference by making the market for highly liquid securities. This could also result in your order filling, in pieces, at several different prices if your brokerage firm fills it through multiple market makers. Of course, if you place your order on an exchange where an electronic system fills it (the other type of exchange that Chris mentioned), this could happen anyway.

In short, if you place a market order for 1000 shares, it could be filled at several different prices, depending on volume, multiple bid-ask prices, etc. If you place a sizable order, your broker may fill it in pieces regardless to prevent you from moving the market. This is rarely a problem for small-time investors trading securities with high volumes, but for investors with higher capital like institutional investors, mutual funds, etc. who place large orders relative to the average volume, this could conceivably be a burden, both in the price difference across time as the order is placed and the increased bookkeeping it demands.

This is tangentially related, so I'll add it anyway. In cases like the one described above, all-or-none (AON) orders are one solution; these are orders that instruct the broker to only execute the order if it can be filled in a single transaction. Most brokers offer these, but there are some caveats that apply to them specifically. (I haven't been able to find some of this information, so some of this is from memory).

  1. All-or-none orders are only an option if the order is for more than a certain numbers of shares. I think the minimum size is 300 or 400 shares.

  2. Your order won't be placed until your broker places all other orders ahead of it that don't have special conditions attached to them.

  3. I believe all-or-none orders are day orders, which means that if there wasn't enough supply to fill the order during the day, the order is cancelled at market close.

  4. AON orders only apply to limit orders. If you want to replicate the behavior of a market order with AON characteristics, you can try setting a limit buy/sell order a few cents above/below the current market price.

share|improve this answer

protected by Chris W. Rea Jun 12 '13 at 17:39

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality answers, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site.

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.