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Institutional vs. Retail Stocks: Understanding the Difference

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Meme Mania Returns

Meme mania has returned to Wall Street after internet personality “Roaring Kitty” tweeted for the first time earlier this week and drove them higher. As momentum investors looked to cash in on the hype, GameStop ((GME - Free Report) ) and other meme stocks have more than doubled on the week before paring gains dramatically on Tuesday. Thus far this week, the retail investor has owned the day. In fact, beaten-down penny stock AMC ((AMC - Free Report) ) traded more shares than the S&P 500 Index ETF ((SPY - Free Report) ) yesterday!

Having been a trader for more than two decades, I have learned not to get caught in the FOMO (fear of missing out) madness and chase the “shiny objects,” such as meme stocks. While such a pursuit can be alluring, investing in these stocks is pure gambling. While trading volatile meme stocks can be a profitable pursuit for highly skilled technical-oriented retail traders, it is a dangerous endeavor for the majority of investors.

Institutional vs. Retail Stocks: Why it Matters

Institutional investors such as mutual funds, hedge funds, pension funds, and banks make up the bulk of trading volume on Wall Street. Because institutions control most of the capital on Wall Street, they are the most significant driver of equity prices in the long run. Conversely, retail investors are typically late to moves and perform worse over time. Obviously, there are exceptions to the above, such as this week’s market action. Nevertheless, investors are best served to focus on institutional quality stocks in the long run. Top-tier institutional investors like the Fidelity Contra Fund ((FCNTX - Free Report) ) may buy and hold a stock over months and years, while institutional investors can be in and out within minutes.

Retail vs. Institutional: Understanding the Difference

Knowing the difference between institutional stocks can save you a lot of money and headaches. Below are three significant distinctions:

Volatility & Beta

Beta is a measure of risk commonly used to compare the volatility of stocks, mutual funds, or ETFS to that of the overall market. The S&P 500 Index is the base for calculating beta with a value of 1.0. Securities with betas below 1 have historically been less volatile than the market and vice versa. Retail stocks have high betas and are very volatile, while institutional quality stocks are the opposite.

Lower volatility names may not be as exciting, but they are smoother traders, easier to hold, and far less stressful. Investors can simply use the naked eye to look at a chart’s average daily ranges to determine the difference or find the Beta on the quote page.

Zacks Investment Research
Image Source: Zacks Investment Research

Fundamentals vs Hype

Retail stocks are driven by hearsay, tweets, and hype, while institutional stocks are driven by underlying fundamentals. For example, Nvidia ((NVDA - Free Report) ), an institutional favorite, is expected to grow quarterly earnings by 400% year-over-year this quarter.

Zacks Investment Research
Image Source: Zacks Investment Research

Share Price

The old adage, “You get what you pay for,” applies to Wall Street. Retail stocks are often lower priced and are driven by temporary short squeezes. Conversely, the great paradox of Wall Street is that higher-priced stocks are more stable and are more likely to trend higher over time. Berkshire Hathaway (BRKA) is a perfect example of the high-price phenomenon. In the 1990s, the stock was trading at $35k, and today it trades north of $600k!

Bottom Line

Retail-centric stocks can be tempting but very risky. For long term success, investors should stick to institutional quality stocks.

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