Basics of Reading Stocks

Key information about stocks is found in the basic stock table, especially for those learning about the stock market.

For this discussion, you can follow along by opening another window to view online stock tables provided by the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) online. Due to the large volume of data in the table, it may take a minute or so for the information to be fully available.

Stock tables published in newspapers, discussed below, are similar to the WSJ online version. However, the online version has some important differences. Also, you will not have the ability to easily find additional information about each stock, as can easily be done with the online table.

Wall Street Journal Online Stock Tables

Compared to stock tables in newspapers, the WSJ online version is much easier to read. Text  and numbers are more clearly organized.

Letter-symbols used in the table are explained at the end of the table.

Stocks are listed alphabetically. Across the header for each letter is a description of information in the 14 columns, starting with the stock “Symbol” or abbreviation. By clicking on a stock symbol, you can obtain more detailed information about the stock.

Columns 2 to 5 track daily price movement for the previous trading day, beginning with the first trade of the day (“Open”) followed by the “High” price, “Low” price and final (“Close”) price.

“Net Chg” is the change in price compared to the closing price of the previous day while “%Chg” is the percentage change (from the previous day).

“Vol” is the stock volume, which means how many shares were traded for the day. The actual volume is listed, which is different from newspaper versions, which typically list only a truncated number. Volume can vary greatly. For example, on 6-13-11, volume for General Electric was more than 42 million shares while volume for some stocks was less than 1,000 shares.

Next two columns are the high and low price during the past 52 weeks. These prices may stay the same for weeks or months at a time, although they will evenutally change as time passes.

Next column is the dividend amount, in dollars, for the entire year. This is a major (and welcome) difference compared to newspaper tables, which generally list dividends amounts for each quarter (3 months).

Next column is the annual dividend yield, in percentage terms, which is simply 100 times the annual dividend amount divided by the current stock price. For example, the annual dividend for Baxter International is $1.24. Dividing this amount by the closing stock price (58.03 on 6-13-11), and then multiplying the decimal result by 100, results in the listed annual yield value of 2.14 (percent). 

“PE” is the price-earning ratio, which is the current price divided by the current annual earnings. However, the time period for current earnings is not the same for each stock due to differences in accounting procedures used by companies. In the past, the PE ratio was a key parameter used for stock analysis. In more recent times, this venerable  marker is not considered as important since many other statistics are available that supposedly are more useful.

Final column (“YTD%chg”) is the Year To Date percentange change, which measures the change in price since the end of last year, in percentage terms. On 6-13-11, Baxter International was up 14.64 percent from the price at the end of 2010.

Stock Tables in Newspapers

Many newspapers have eliminated basic daily stock tables, including the New York Times.  The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) continues to publish stock tables, though even the Journal has reduced the scope of their once voluminous daily tables. Barron’s, published weekly, provides stock tables for all stocks on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) and Nasdaq.

Most comprehensive stock tables are published by Investors Business Daily (IBD) daily newspaper.  IBD includes proprietary information not found in the more typical stock table. IBD has influenced the evolution of stock tables, including those in WSJ.

Understanding information in stock tables published by WSJ and Barron’s provides a basis for understanding tables published by any other source.

Wall Street Journal Stock Tables

Wall Street Journal (WSJ) presents data for “The Biggest 1,000 Stocks”, listed alphabetically. Basic explanation about information in the table is provided at top left under “How to Read the Stock Tables”, including “footnotes” which are symbols and abbreviations. For example, “dd” means that the stock (actually the company that issued the stock) had a “loss in the most recent four quarters”.  The symbol “vj” denotes a bankruptcy. Footnotes can appear anywhere in the table.

The heading at top of each column, identifying information in the table, is not always easy to correlate with the actual data.

For each stock the following data is listed, from left to right;

1)- Up or down arrow to identify new 52-week high (up) or 52-week low (down)

2)- Percentage change of stock price since start of the calendar year (YTD meaning “Year To Date”)

3)- 52-week high; meaning the high price during the past 52 weeks (essentially one year)

4)- 52-week low (price)

5)- Name of stock (in shorthand if necessary to fit)

6)- Stock symbol, typically 2, 3 or 4 letters

7)- Annual percentage yield of dividend, if applicable, in percentage points

8) – Price-Earnings Ratio (PE); essentially the current price divided by current annual earnings. The “dd” footnote (indicating earnings loss) appears in the PE column if applicable, since all PE values are positive only.  

9)- Most recent price at the end of the last trading day

10)- Change in price compared to the closing price of the previous day

Cloverleaf symbol in front of the stock name means that a free annual report is available from WSJ, as explained in a small box adjacent to the table.

Actual dividend amount (per year) can be estimated by multiplying the published yield (divided by 100) times the stock price.  However, this calculation will generally not result in the exact amount due to rounding. Most important is that reported dividend yield only represents the most recent year. For any potential investment, the current dividend must be checked. For example, a dividend that has been reduced or even discontinued may not be reflected the yield value published in the table.  

Value of the PE (price-earnings) ratio has been debated by many investment professionals. However, the ratio can vary greatly in a short period of time, especially when company earnings change rapidly, as has occurred in recent years.  

Barron’s Stock Tables

Barron’s, published weekly, provides stock tables with more information that WSJ.  Tables for all NYSE and Nasdaq stocks (that have traded) are published after the end of trading on Friday, for the past week.

As can be seen just by glancing at the “How to Read the Barron’s Stock Tables”, provided on a full page before the NYSE tables, many more symbols and abbreviations are included to explain a very wide range of occurrences. For example the “Market Transaction Symbol” of “p” tells you that, for the dividend,  there has been a “rate increase from last regular dividend payment”.

Brief explanation for the dividend yield and price-earning (PE) values are also provided.

Data is arranged similar to the WSJ tables. However, the following additional information is reported;

1)- Weekly volume in “100s” of shares. This means that you have to add two zeroes to the reported value to get the actual trading volume.

2) – Annual earnings for “Latest Year”, “This Year” and “Next Year”. As explained in “How to Read…”, earnings values are obtained from IBES International.

3) – Dividend amount, typically for the most recent quarter. Note that, contrary to the explanation provided,  this value is NOT the annual amount. You can verify this by simply estimating the annual dividend amount using the reported yield times the stock price.

In the “Market Laboratory” section, Barron’s provides a wealth of additional data including tables and charts about stocks, mutual funds, bonds and general economic trends. There is enough data in each issue of Barron’s to keep you busy reading for many hours if you are interested.

Additional Date Available Online

Extraordinary amounts of information about stocks and other investments are available online, especially if you have an online brokerage account. However, much free information is also available.

Major financial publications (such as Wall Street Journal and Barron’s) provide much more information on their web sites than is published in their hardcopy.

Many of the chart functions available online for individual stocks provide mind-boggling capabilities.

Some of the more well-known sources of free information about stocks are the following web sites;

Yahoo Finance

The Motley Fool

TheStreet (by Investors Business Daily)