Incorporation and the Trading of Capital Shares

Question: Above, in discussing the possible decisions that could be made about an organization, ownership shares were mentioned. Occasionally, on television, in newspapers, or on the Internet, mention is made that the shares of one company or another have gone up or down in price during that day because of trading on one of the stock markets. Why does a person or an organization acquire ownership shares of a business such as Capital One or Intel?

Answer: In the United States, as well as in many other countries, owners of a business or other type of organization can apply to the state government to have it identified as an entity legally separate from its owners. This process is referred to as incorporation. Therefore, a corporation is an organization that has been formally recognized by the government as a legal entity. A business that has not been incorporated is legally either a sole proprietorship (one owner) or a partnership (more than one owner).

As will be discussed in detail in In a Set of Financial Statements, What Information Is Conveyed about Shareholders’ Equity?", several advantages can be gained from incorporation. For one, a corporation has the ability to issue (sell) shares to obtain monetary resources and allow investors to become owners (also known as stockholders or shareholders). The Walt Disney Company and General Electric, as just two examples, are corporations. They exist as legal entities completely distinct from the multitude of individuals and organizations that possess their ownership shares (also known as equity or capital stock).

Any investor who acquires one or more capital shares of a corporation is an owner and has rights that are specified by the state government or on the stock certificate. The number of shares and owners can be staggering. At the end of 2008, owners held over 2.3 billion shares of The Coca-Cola Company. Thus, possession of one share of The Coca-Cola Company at that time gave a person approximately a 1/2,300,000,000th part of the ownership.

If traded on a stock exchange, shares of the capital stock of a corporation continually go up and down in value based on myriad factors, including the perceived financial health and prospects of the organization.

As an example, during trading on December 4, 2009, the price of an ownership share of Intel rose by $0.59 to $20.46, while a share of Capital One went up by $1.00 to $37.92.

For countless individuals and groups around the world, the most popular method of investment is through the purchase and sell of these shares of corporate ownership. Although a number of other types of investment opportunities are available (such as the acquisition of gold or land), few evoke the level of interest of capital stock. On the New York Stock Exchange alone, billions of shares are bought and sold every business day at a wide range of prices. As of December 4, 2009, an ownership share of Ford Motor Company was trading for $8.94, while a single share of Berkshire Hathaway sold for thousands of dollars.

Question: In most cases, the owners of a small corporation should be able to operate the business effectively. For example, one person might hold one hundred shares of capital stock while another owns two hundred. Those two individuals must learn to work together to manage the business on a day-today basis. Large corporations offer a significantly different challenge. How could millions of investors possessing billions of capital shares of a single corporation ever serve in any reasonable capacity as the ownership of that organization?

Answer: Obviously, a great many companies like The Coca-Cola Company have an enormous quantity of capital shares outstanding. Virtually none of these owners can expect to have any impact on the daily operations of the corporation. In a vast number of such businesses, stockholders simply vote to elect a representative group to oversee the company for them. This body—called the board of directors —is made up of approximately ten to twenty-five knowledgeable individuals.

Occasionally, the original founders of a business (or their descendants) continue to hold enough shares to influence or actually control its operating and financial decisions. Or wealthy outside investors may acquire enough shares to gain this same level of power. Such owners have genuine authority within the corporation. Because these cases are less common, the specific financial accounting issues involved with this degree of ownership will be deferred until a later chapter. In most cases, the hierarchy of owners, board of directors, management, and employees remains intact. Thus, stockholders are usually quite removed from the operations of any large corporation.

Question: The acquisition of capital shares is an extremely popular investment strategy across a wide range of the population. A buyer becomes one of the owners of the corporation. Why spend money in this way especially since very few stockholders can ever hope to hold enough shares to participate in managing or influencing the operations? Ownership shares sometimes cost small amounts but can also require hundreds if not thousands of dollars. What is the potential benefit of buying capital stock issued by a business organization?

Answer: Capital shares of thousands of corporations trade each day on markets around the world, such as the New York Stock Exchange or NASDAQ (National Association of Securities Dealers Automated Quotation Service). One party is looking to sell shares whereas another is seeking shares to buy. Stock markets match up these buyers and sellers so that a mutually agreed-upon price can be negotiated. This bargaining process allows the ownership interest of all these companies to change hands with relative ease.

When investors believe a company is financially healthy and its future is bright, they expect prosperity and growth. If that happens, the negotiated price for this company’s capital stock should rise over time. Everyone attempts to anticipate such movements in order to buy the stock at a low price and sell it later at a higher one. Conversely, if predictions are not optimistic, then the share price is likely to drop and owners face the possibility of incurring losses in the value of their investments. Many factors affect the movement of stock prices such as the perceived quality of the management, historical trends in profitability, the viability of the industry in which it operates, and the health of the economy as a whole.

Financial accounting information plays an invaluable role in this market process as millions of investors attempt each day to assess the financial condition and prospects of corporate organizations. Being able to understand and make use of reported financial data helps improve the investor’s knowledge of a company and, thus, the chance of making wise decisions that will generate profits from buying and selling capital shares. Ignorance can lead to poor decisions and much less lucrative outcomes.

In the United States, such investment gains—if successfully generated—are especially appealing to individuals if the shares are held for over twelve months before being sold. For income tax purposes, the difference between the buy and sale prices for such investments is referred to as a longterm capital gain or loss. Under certain circumstances, significant tax reductions are allowed in connection with long-term capital gains. Congress created this tax incentive to encourage investment so that businesses could more easily obtain money for growth purposes.

Question: Investors acquire ownership shares of selected corporations hoping that the stock values will rise over time. This investment strategy is especially tempting because net long-term capital gains are taxed at a relatively low rate. Is the possibility for appreciation of stock prices the only reason that investors choose to acquire capital shares?

Answer: Many corporations—although certainly not all—also pay cash dividends to their stockholders periodically. A dividend is a reward for being an owner of a business that is prospering. It is not a required payment; it is a sharing of profits with the stockholders. As an example, for 2008, Duke Energy reported earning profits (net income) of $1.36 billion. During that same period, the corporation distributed a total cash dividend of approximately $1.14 billion to the owners of its capital stock.

The board of directors determines whether to pay dividends. Some boards prefer to leave money within the business to stimulate future growth and additional profits. For example, Yahoo! Inc. reported profits (net income) for 2008 of over $424 million but paid no dividends to its owners.

Not surprisingly, a variety of investing strategies abound. Some investors acquire ownership shares almost exclusively in hopes of benefiting from the potential for significant appreciation of stock prices. Another large segment of the investing public is more interested in the possibility of dividend payments.

Unless an owner has the chance to influence or control operations, only these two possible benefits can accrue: appreciation in the value of the stock price and cash dividends.

Question: An investor can put money into a savings account at a bank and earn a small but relatively risk free profit. For example, $100 could be invested on January 1 and then be worth $102 at the end of the year because interest is added. The extra $2 means that the investor is earning an annual return of 2 percent ($2 increase/$100 investment). How is the annual return computed when the capital stock of a corporation is acquired?

Answer: Capital stock investments are certainly not risk free. Profits can be high, but losses are also always a possibility. Assume that on January 1, Year One, an investor spends $100 for one ownership share of Company A and another $100 for a share of Company B. During the year, Company A distributes a dividend of $1.00 per share to its owners while Company B pays $5.00 per share. On December 31, the stock of Company A is selling on the stock market for $108 per share whereas the stock of Company B is selling for $91 per share.

The investor now holds a total value of $109 as a result of the purchase of the share of Company A: the cash dividend of $1 and a share of stock worth $108. Total value has gone up $9 ($109 less $100) so that the annual return for the year was 9 percent ($9 increase/$100 investment).

The shares of Company B have not performed as well. Total value is now only $96: the cash dividend of $5 plus one share of stock worth $91. That is a drop of $4 during the year ($96 less $100). The annual return on this investment is a negative 4 percent ($4 decrease/$100 investment).

Clearly, investors want to have all the information they need in hopes of maximizing their potential profits each year. A careful analysis of the available data might have helped this investor choose Company A rather than Company B.


Incorporation allows an organization to be viewed as a separate entity apart from its ownership. As a corporation, shares of capital stock can be issued that give the holder an ownership right. If the organization is financially healthy and prospering, these shares can increase in value—possibly by a significant amount. In addition, a profitable organization may well share its good fortune with the ownership through the distribution of cash dividends.

In most large organizations, few owners want to be involved in the operational decision making. Instead, these stockholders elect a board of directors to oversee the company and direct the work of management.

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