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The Alphabet Soup Of Stocks

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If you've ever watched financial TV or read financial papers, you may have heard of classifications like cyclical, growth and income stocks. As if the difference between preferred and common stocks wasn't enough, there are now more categories to add to the confusion! In this article, we'll try to chase away the confusion with some clarity and logic.

Below is a list of categories that denote the way in which different stocks perform during various times of the year or periods of the business cycle:

  • Seasonal – These companies are characterized by the different levels of demand they face throughout the year. A snow shovel manufacturer, for example, is probably not very busy in the summer. Another seasonal effect is the increase in retail sales during the holidays. But investing in seasonal stocks doesn't mean that you can automatically gain a healthy profit simply by purchasing a retail stock in the fall and selling it just after Christmas - not all seasonal stocks are guaranteed to do well, even during their peak seasons. When you analyze financial statements for a seasonal stock, you need to compare results to the same season of the previous year.

  • Non-Seasonal – These stocks are not affected by the change of seasons. Certain companies produce or sell goods that have what we call an inelastic demand curve. A good example is a peanut butter manufacturer - the demand for peanut butter is generally not affected by the weather or holidays.

  • Cyclical – These companies, whose business activities intensely follow the business cycles of the economy, are always the first stocks to reflect a recession or an expansion. These companies don't necessarily intend to follow the business cycle, it just so happens that their products share this relationship with the economy. A good example of a company with cyclical stock would be a car manufacturer or an airline company. Luxury is one of the factors in the relationship between these stocks and the business cycle. Take Porsche, for example: when the economy is doing well, the sales of these fine automobiles rise. Conversely, when the economy goes into a slump, sales slow down.

  • Non-Cyclical – This is the opposite of a cyclical stock. Profits of a non-cyclical stock do not change readily with the business cycle. These are companies that provide us with essentials, such as health and food. Also referred to as defensive stocks, these stocks don't rely upon the economic environment for increased sales. A perfect example is the diaper industry: regardless of whether the economy is busting or booming, parents have to buy diapers for their babies.

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Adding to the confusion, stocks are also classified according to their type of dividend payout scheme. Now remember, this is separate from what we have already discussed. Dividend payouts have little to do with the seasonal demands a company faces; instead, they are determined by each company's individual policy and objectives:

  • Growth – Growth stocks are known for their lack of dividends and rapidly increasing market prices. Defined by their tendency to grow faster than the market, these companies generally reinvest all earnings into infrastructure in order to maintain rapid growth, rather than directly paying out their earnings to investors. Young technology companies are often considered to be high growth, but the main characteristic of growth companies is that they believe plowing earnings back into the research and development of new products benefits shareholders more than a dividend check every three months.

  • Income – These stocks aren't (usually) growth hungry, or they've already reached their maximum growth potential. Income stocks' prices do not tend to fluctuate a great deal. However, they do pay dividends that are higher than average. The value of an income stock depends on its reliability and track record in paying dividends. Generally, the longer a company has maintained dividend payments, the greater its value to investors. Historical examples of income stocks are REITs and utility stocks, many of which pay out annual dividends of 5% or more.

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Finally, the financial industry uses many slang terms to describe and categorize stocks. These terms aren't always intuitive, but they do have their place in the financial world. Here are some of the many terms used to characterize stocks:

  • Blue Chip – These are companies that are cream of the crop, old-school and everlasting. Blue chips tend to be market mammoths, and have proven their ability to survive through both good times and bad. The term comes from poker, where blue chips are the ones with the highest value. These companies are generally expensive to purchase but can be safe bets. General Electric, Wal-Mart and IBM have all established themselves as blue chips.

  • Penny Stock - We use the term penny stock not in a strictly literal sense, to denote stocks below a dollar, but to refer to stocks considered very speculative. These stocks are generally new to the market, with no reputation or history to fall back on. Penny stocks present the possibility of large gains or losses.

  • Bo Derek – This is a term created by traders in the late '70s to describe the perfect stock. Back then, actress Bo Derek was considered "the perfect 10". This slang term might be a little dated for a new generation of investors, since Bo Derek was famous in another era.

Conclusion
Now, how do these terms fit with one another you might ask? Well, next time you hear a cyclical income stock referred to as a real "Bo Derek", you'll know what it means. A stock's categorization can be varied and prone to change in different situations. Stocks that were once speculative may become blue chip; cyclical stocks can become non-cyclical due to some widespread economic changes; and seasonal stocks may reduce their exposure by exporting goods. Changing times mean that dynamic companies will change their visions and goals. The important thing is to not only remember what category a stock falls under, but also how it compares to other stocks of the same category.

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