Investing in Stock Markets: 101

   The stock market is one of the most common areas to invest in. But what exactly is the stock market?

What is the Stock Market?

   The stock market refers to all markets and exchanges where you can buy and sell shares in public companies. In aggregate, the stock market refers to all publicly traded companies in the world. Ownership of these companies is represented by shares of ownership, or shares. Most countries have their own exchanges, though with the global nature of business, consumers can buy and sell shares across exchanges around the world.

What is a Stock Exchange?

   A stock exchange is a collection of companies deemed to be traded on that exchange. For example, the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) and/or the NASDAQ is where many of America’s public companies can be bought and sold. Toronto has their own Exchange, through the TSX (Toronto Stock Exchange), and London has their own Exchange (LSE). Basically, a stock exchange is just a large store where you can buy and sell a variety of financial instruments, from shares to bonds, and even options. The shares on offer at each “store” may be different. For example, Enbridge is a Canadian energy company, and can only be bought or sold on the TSX.

The Stock Market and Stock Exchanges are Different. Why is that important?

   The stock market refers to the all-encompassing marketplace for buying and selling financial instruments, including shares. Each exchange operates on their own currency, for example the TSX buys and sells in Canadian dollars, the NYSE and NASDAQ operate in USD, and the London Stock Exchange operates in the British Pound. This means that buying and selling across international exchanges opens you up to foreign currency fluctuations. Also, since the exchanges are based in a specific country, that country's tax laws will also impact your investments.

Investing in Exchanges: ETFs and Index Funds

   As an extremely popular method of investing, Index funds seek to track the overall performance of stocks fitting a certain set of criteria. Some of the most popular indexes that are reported on are the S&P 500, or the 500 largest companies traded in the USA. Another index is the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA), which is comprised of 30 of the largest companies in the US. By investing in ETFs, investors are able to diversify within an exchange at a relatively low cost of ownership. Rather than purchasing one share of each company in the market, an ETF allows you to purchase the general movement of the exchange as a whole.

Market Fluctuations in Today’s Economic Climate

   Understanding the difference between stock exchanges and the stock market in general is even more important during these difficult times in 2020. As the coronavirus is a global event, every country is impacted. But the impacts are not felt equally across the entire world. This means that the business disruption will be more severe in some countries than in others. As a share is simply a purchase of ownership in a company, certain companies and exchanges will be affected more severely than others.

   To illustrate this, we can look at the returns for the TSX Composite Index and the S&P 500 for the week of March 23 to March 27, 2020.

Opening and Closing Level of the TSX and S&P 500 for the week of 3/23/2020.

   In that time, the TSX saw an increase in value by 7.5%, while the S&P 500 grew 10.93%. How each government responds to the health crisis will influence how exchanges perform in the overall market. To diversify your investments, it is wise to consider investing beyond your local exchange. But, the calculations aren’t always as straight forward, depending on the accounts you are using, tax laws can impact your returns quite substantially, especially when foreign markets come into play.

US Withholding Taxes on Stocks (For Canadians)

   At the risk of diving too deep into the rabbit hole, it is worth a quick look at US withholding taxes. The two largest stock exchanges in the world (based on market cap) are located in the US, the NYSE and NASDAQ. Given the size of these exchanges, it is extremely likely that you will invest some of your financial resources on these exchanges. Canada and the US have tax treaties which allow for preferential treatment, but most investment proceeds in the form of dividends and interest are subject to withholding taxes. These additional taxes can be avoided however, if you are making these investments in a qualified account.

   The accounts that qualify for this favourable tax treatment are in general your retirement accounts, such as an RRSP. This is an important distinction to make, because the TFSA, which is another popular Canadian tax advantaged account does not receive the same special treatment for US holdings.

   If you are using an account that isn’t your RRSP to invest in the US, you will need to file a tax form with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to take advantage of the Canada-US tax treaties that reduces (but not eliminates) foreign withholding tax. This form is the W-8BEN.

Summary

   Investing is an important element in everyone’s financial plan. The stock market is one place where many of us will invest some of our money. Even in the stock market, there are different subsets, groups of companies in different regions, traded on different exchanges. These exchanges operate as stores, selling slightly different merchandise. Some of these stores will do better than others, as global events impact different regions at a different scale.

   Aside from investing in companies around the world, the savvy investor also needs to know how currency fluctuations and tax laws will impact their returns. With the right mix of investment accounts, you can capitalize on the benefits of diversifying into different exchanges. RRSPs receive preferential tax treatment in the form of eliminating withholding taxes on interest and dividends from US sources. When considering investing in the US, it is more beneficial from a withholding tax standpoint to use the RRSP over the TFSA, as long as your objectives for both accounts are the same, investing for retirement. For all other investments on US stock exchanges, it is important that you file a W-8BEN to take advantage of the existing tax treaties between Canada and the US. This will ensure you aren’t leaving money on the table. After all, less taxes paid means higher returns for you!

   Knowing how to use the tools available to you will help you build the right financial plan for you. Financial freedom isn’t a lofty ideal, with the right knowledge it is a realizable goal.

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