Tips for Online Investing

Updated July 10, 2020 | Infoplease Staff
Source: Securities and Exchange Commission

More Americans are investing in the stock market and many of them are doing so through the Internet. Online brokerages account for approximately 25% of all retail stock trades, and the number of online brokerage accounts is expected to exceed 10 million by the end of 1999.

The price of some stocks can soar and drop suddenly. In these fast markets, when many investors want to trade at the same time and prices change quickly, delays can develop. Executions and confirmations slow down, while reports of prices lag behind actual prices. In these markets, investors can suffer unexpected losses very quickly.

Investors trading over the Internet, who are used to instant access to their accounts and near instantaneous executions of their trades, especially need to understand how they can protect themselves in fast-moving markets.

You can limit your losses in fast-moving markets if you:

  • know what you are buying and the risks of your investments and;
  • know how trading changes during fast markets and take additional steps to guard against the typical problems investors face in these markets.

Trading is quick, investing takes time

With a click of the mouse, you can buy and sell stocks from more than 100 online brokers offering executions as low as $5 per transaction. Although online trading saves investors time and money, it does not take the homework out of making investment decisions. Before you trade, know why you are buying or selling, and the risk of your investment.

Set price limits

To avoid buying or selling a stock at a price higher or lower than you wanted, you need to place a limit order rather than a market order. A limit order is an order to buy or sell a security at a specific price. A buy limit order can only be executed at the limit price or lower, and a sell limit order can only be executed at the limit price or higher. When you place a market order, you can't control the price at which your order will be filled.

For example, if you want to buy a stock of a “hot” IPO that was initially offered at $9, but don't want to end up paying more than $20 for the stock, you can place a limit order to buy the stock at any price up to $20. By entering a limit order rather than a market order, you will not be caught buying the stock at $90 and then suffering immediate losses as the stock drops later in the day or in the weeks ahead.

What if you can't access your account?

Most online trading firms offer alternatives for placing trades. These alternatives may include touch-tone telephone trades, faxing your order, or doing it the low-tech way—talking to a broker over the phone. Make sure you know whether using these different options may increase your costs. If you experience delays getting online, you may face similar delays when you turn to one of these alternatives.

Don't assume your order didn't go through

Some investors mistakenly assume that their orders have not been executed and place another order. They end up owning either twice as much stock as they wanted, or with selling a stock they do not own. Talk with your firm about what to do when you are unsure if your original order was executed.

Make sure your cancel order worked

When you cancel an online trade, make sure that your original transaction was not executed. Although you may receive an electronic receipt for the cancellation, don't assume that it means the trade was canceled. Orders can only be canceled if they have not been executed. Ask your firm about how you should check to see if a cancellation order actually worked.

A word about margin trades

Now is the time to reread your margin agreement and pay attention to the fine print. If your account has fallen below the firm's maintenance margin requirement, your broker has the legal right to sell your securities at any time without consulting you first. Some investors have been rudely surprised that “margin calls” are a courtesy, not a requirement. Brokers are not required to make margin calls to their customers.

Even when your broker offers you time to put more cash or securities into your account to meet a margin call, the broker can act without waiting for you to meet the call. In a rapidly declining market, your broker can sell your entire margin account at a substantial loss to you, because the securities in the account have declined in value.

There is no time limit to make a trade

There are no Securities and Exchange Commission regulations that require a trade to be executed within a set period of time. But if firms advertise their speed of execution, they must not exaggerate or fail to tell investors about the possibility of significant delays.

If you have a complaint

Act promptly. By law, you only have a limited time to take legal action.

  • Talk to your broker or online firm and ask for an explanation. Take notes.
  • If you are dissatisfied with the response and believe you have been treated unfairly, ask to talk with the broker's branch manager. In the case of an online firm, go directly to step number three.
  • If you are still dissatisfied, write to the compliance department at the firm's main office. Explain your problem clearly, and tell the firm how you want it resolved. Ask the compliance office to respond in writing within 30 days.
  • If you're still dissatisfied, then send a letter of complaint to the National Association of Securities Dealers, your state securities administrator, or to the Office of Investor Education and Assistance at the SEC along with copies of the letters you've already sent to the firm.

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