This morning I came across a blog post talking about the bid/ask spread in the stock market. It talks about how the spread is a hidden cost in trading, which it is to be sure. A lot of folks don’t realize that to be the case in stocks since they primarily see just closing value. As with every market, though, there is a bid/ask spread.
The post’s author made some good points in general, but had a few things incorrect. I figure that if he is off in his thinking on the subject, then it’s likely other stock traders and investors are as well. Let me lay it out here.
The first error the post author made was to say that when you trade stocks your broker makes the spread because it is on the other side of the trade. That’s simply not true.
In an exchange driven market like stocks you are rarely trading against your broker – and pretty much never if you’re using a discount broker. Brokers are just pass-through agents. Your order goes into the market and is matched against what’s available there, meaning an opposing order put in by some other trader, probably through some other brokerage (or directly). That other trader could be a market maker, an institution of some sort, or even just some other individual trader like yourself.
The point is, your broker doesn’t keep that money as profit. The people who profit from the spread are the market makers who constantly seek to buy at the bid and sell at the offer. They are essentially being paid for providing liquidity. (Note: Price makers are always better off than price takers).
The author also used the term pay to describe the impact of the spread on your account and that essentially you pay half up front and half when you close out the trade. Again, that’s not quite right.
You never “pay” the spread. Yes, if you go in and buy using a market order your trade value will immediately be lower because you will have bought at the ask(offer) price and would have to sell at the lower bid price. It’s not as though that money actually comes out of your account, though, like a commission. It’s a paper loss.
And you only take the hit to your position value once, when you first put the trade on, not half when you open and half when you close. When you buy you immediately suffer a paper loss equal to the spread value. From that point on, however, your position value is based on the bid price. You don’t take another hit getting out of the trade like you do with your commissions.
Lastly, the blog author said that long-term investing was better than short-term trading because “…it takes less gain to overcome the expenses”. That’s factually incorrect.
If the spread is $0.50 then it takes a $0.50 move in the market in your favor to overcome that cost. Your holding period doesn’t matter. If you’re trading frequently and going after smaller profits, though, the spread does represent a larger portion of your gains, as does the commission. I’m guessing that’s what he really meant.