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How to Read Stock Tickers

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Editor’s Note: We’ll be using FAKE to represent Totally Made Up Company as an example stock ticker throughout this post. It’s not intended to represent any real company (not now, not ever); we just thought it was clever.

You know those stock numbers that scroll along the bottom of some news programs? Those are real-time stock tickers. They show up-to-date info about a security—such as stocks or ETFs—by listing out the last trade. Reading them can seem a little daunting, but breaking each of the parts down can help.

First, some history

Stock “ticker” gets its name from the ticker tape machine, made in 1867. It was developed to show movements—or “ticks”—of a stock price on the New York Stock Exchange. Ticker tapes automatically recorded all trading activity on the exchange floor onto a narrow piece of paper (the tape).

During those times, running the numbers was literal; messengers or “pad shovers” actually ran a circuit between the trading floor and brokerages in order to provide updated stock prices. As you can imagine, the closer the office to the trading floor on Wall St., the more accurate the quotes.

Faster ticker tape machines were introduced over the next hundred years, but they still had a 15-20 minute delay. It wasn’t until 1996 that a fully electronic real-time ticker tape machine was released. It gave up-to-the-minute info about price and volume, which is primarily what you see on TV, the news, and in apps today.

While the physical ticker tape doesn’t exist anymore, the name stuck.

So how do you read a stock ticker?

The key to reading stock tickers is breaking down six parts.

Ticker Symbol

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The first part of a ticker is the symbol. It’s a combo of letters that represent the security. The number of letters can vary depending on the exchange the security is traded on. The New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) only allows up to 3 characters. There are some single letter ticker symbols on the NYSE, and they’re coveted. For example, X represents US steel and F is Ford’s. NASDAQ, on the other hand, allows four or five—five for foreign companies, which always have an F or a Y as the final letter.

A couple of rules:

  • Ticker symbols have to be unique. When a company goes public for the first time, they specify a first, second, and third choice, just in case.
  • The symbol has to be safe for work, so nothing profane.

While not a rule, many companies will try to choose a ticker symbol that relates to their business or brand in some way, like Spotify’s SPOT and Snapchat’s SNAP.

Share Volume

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Share Volume shows the number of shares that were traded in the last trade. It can be listed in hundreds (no suffix), thousands (K) or millions (M). So the example above means that the last trade was for 2,000 shares at a price of $102 per share, which we’ll talk about in a second.

Price Traded

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This number represents that price the last share was bought or sold at. You might also hear this referred to as “trade value”—because it refers to the value of a share in the last trade.

That said, stock prices can change in a matter of milliseconds. So, for example, even if you see the last trade price as $55.55 on the ticker and want to buy it, it could be $56 when you go to initiate a trade even just moments later.

Change Direction

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The change direction is shown with an arrow. If the arrow is pointing up, the stock is trading at a higher price than at the close of the day before. If it’s pointing down, it’s trading at a lower price.

Change Amount

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This last part shows how much the price has changed from the previous day’s closing price. So if you look at the image example above with a $0.52 change amount and a price traded amount of $102, then it means FAKE was trading at $101.48 at close of the previous day.

Ticker Color

Color can be a helpful quick indicator when it comes to understanding stock price changes. So for those able, here’s what to look for:

  • Red usually indicates the security is trading at a lower price than the day before.
  • Green typically means it’s trading higher.
  • Blue and white can both be used to show the pricing is the same.

Probably the best way to put all of this knowledge to use is practice reading the stock ticker tape. Keep this info close-at-hand the next time you see a ticker, and you’ll have it figured out in no time.

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