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When an investor places an order to purchase or sell a stock, there are two fundamental execution options: place the order "at market" or "at limit." Market orders provide instruction to execute, as quickly as possible, a transaction at the present or market price. Conversely, a limit order provides instruction to only execute at or under a purchase price or at or above a market sales price.

A market order deals with the execution of the order; the price of the security is important but secondary. Limit orders deal primarily with the price; if the security's value is currently resting outside of the parameters set in the limit order, the transaction does not occur.

Market Orders

When the layperson imagines a typical stock market transaction, he thinks of market orders. These orders are the most basic buy and sell trades; a broker receives a security trade order and that order is processed at the current market price.

Even though market orders offer a greater likelihood of a trade being executed, there is no guarantee that the trade will actually go through. All stock market transactions are subject to the availability of given stocks and can vary significantly based on the timing and size of the order, and the liquidity of the stock.

All orders are processed within present priority guidelines. Whenever a market order is placed, there is always the threat of market fluctuations occurring between the time the broker receives the order and the time the trade is executed. This is especially a concern for larger orders, which take longer to fill and, if large enough, can actually move the market on their own. Sometimes the trading of individual stocks may be halted or suspended.

A market order that is placed after trading hours, will be filled at the market price on open the next trading day.

For example, an investor enters an order to purchase 100 shares of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT) at market price. Since the investor opts for whatever price WMT is going for, his trade will be filled rather quickly at, say, $75.36 per share (as of May 17, 2017)

Limit Orders

Limit orders are designed to give investors more control over the buying and selling prices of their trades. Prior to placing a purchase order, a maximum acceptable purchase price amount must be selected, and minimum acceptable sales prices are indicated on sales orders.

The obvious risk inherent to limit orders is that, should the actual market price never fall within the limit order guidelines, the investor may fail to execute the order. Another possibility is that a target price may finally be reached, but there is not enough liquidity in the stock to fill the order when its turn comes.

It is common to allow limit orders to be placed outside of market hours. In these cases, the limit orders are placed into a queue for processing as soon as trading resumes. Limit orders are more complicated to execute than market orders and subsequently can result in higher brokerage fees. For low volume stocks that are not listed on major exchanges, it may be difficult to find the actual price, making limit orders an attractive option.

If the investor above is very concerned about buying Wal-Mart shares for a lower price and he thinks that he can get Wal-Mart shares for $74.99 instead, he will enter a limit order for this price. If at some point during the trading day, WMT drops to this price or below, the investor's order will be triggered and he will get 100 shares for $74.99 or less. however, at the end of trading day, if WMT doesn't go as low as $74.99, the investor's order will be unfilled.

 
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