What Are Financial Markets?

Financial markets refer broadly to any marketplace where the trading of securities occurs, including the stock market, bond market, forex market, and derivatives market, among others. Financial markets are vital to the smooth operation of capitalist economies.

Key Takeaways

  • Financial markets refer broadly to any marketplace where the trading of securities occurs.
  • There are many kinds of financial markets, including (but not limited to) forex, money, stock, and bond markets.
  • These markets may include assets or securities that are either listed on regulated exchanges or else trade over-the-counter (OTC).
  • Financial markets trade in all types of securities and are critical to the smooth operation of a capitalist society.
  • When financial markets fail, economic disruption including recession and unemployment can result.
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Financial Market

Understanding the Financial Markets

Financial markets play a vital role in facilitating the smooth operation of capitalist economies by allocating resources and creating liquidity for businesses and entrepreneurs. The markets make it easy for buyers and sellers to trade their financial holdings. Financial markets create securities products that provide a return for those who have excess funds (Investors/lenders) and make these funds available to those who need additional money (borrowers). 

The stock market is just one type of financial market. Financial markets are made by buying and selling numerous types of financial instruments including equities, bonds, currencies, and derivatives. Financial markets rely heavily on informational transparency to ensure that the markets set prices that are efficient and appropriate. The market prices of securities may not be indicative of their intrinsic value because of macroeconomic forces like taxes.

Some financial markets are small with little activity, and others, like the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE), trade trillions of dollars of securities daily. The equities (stock) market is a financial market that enables investors to buy and sell shares of publicly traded companies. The primary stock market is where new issues of stocks, called initial public offerings (IPOs), are sold. Any subsequent trading of stocks occurs in the secondary market, where investors buy and sell securities that they already own.

Prices of securities traded in the financial markets may not necessarily reflect their true intrinsic value.

Types of Financial Markets

Stock Markets

Perhaps the most ubiquitous of financial markets are stock markets. These are venues where companies list their shares and they are bought and sold by traders and investors. Stock markets, or equities markets, are used by companies to raise capital via an initial public offering (IPO), with shares subsequently traded among various buyers and sellers in what is known as a secondary market. Stocks may be traded on listed exchanges, such as the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) or Nasdaq, or else over-the-counter (OTC). Most trading in stocks is done via regulated exchanges, and these play an important role in the economy as both a gauge of the overall health in the economy as well as providing capital gains and dividend income to investors, including those with retirement accounts such as IRAs and 401(k) plans.

Typical participants in a stock market include (both retail and institutional) investors and traders, as well as market makers (MMs) and specialists who maintain liquidity and provide two-sided markets. Brokers are third parties that facilitate trades between buyers and sellers but who do not take an actual position in a stock.

Over-the-Counter Markets

An over-the-counter (OTC) market is a decentralized market—meaning it does not have physical locations, and trading is conducted electronically—in which market participants trade securities directly between two parties without a broker. While OTC markets may handle trading in certain stocks (e.g., smaller or riskier companies that do not meet the listing criteria of exchanges), most stock trading is done via exchanges. Certain derivatives markets, however, are exclusively OTC, and so make up an important segment of the financial markets. Broadly speaking, OTC markets and the transactions that occur on them are far less regulated, less liquid, and more opaque.

Bond Markets

A bond is a security in which an investor loans money for a defined period at a pre-established interest rate. You may think of a bond as an agreement between the lender and borrower that contains the details of the loan and its payments. Bonds are issued by corporations as well as by municipalities, states, and sovereign governments to finance projects and operations. The bond market sells securities such as notes and bills issued by the United States Treasury, for example. The bond market also is called the debt, credit, or fixed-income market.

Money Markets

Typically the money markets trade in products with highly liquid short-term maturities (of less than one year) and are characterized by a high degree of safety and a relatively low return in interest. At the wholesale level, the money markets involve large-volume trades between institutions and traders. At the retail level, they include money market mutual funds bought by individual investors and money market accounts opened by bank customers. Individuals may also invest in the money markets by buying short-term certificates of deposit (CDs), municipal notes, or U.S. Treasury bills, among other examples.

Derivatives Markets

A derivative is a contract between two or more parties whose value is based on an agreed-upon underlying financial asset (like a security) or set of assets (like an index). Derivatives are secondary securities whose value is solely derived from the value of the primary security that they are linked to. In and of itself a derivative is worthless. Rather than trading stocks directly, a derivatives market trades in futures and options contracts, and other advanced financial products, that derive their value from underlying instruments like bonds, commodities, currencies, interest rates, market indexes, and stocks. 

Futures markets are where futures contracts are listed and traded. Unlike forwards, which trade OTC, futures markets utilize standardized contract specifications, are well-regulated, and utilize clearinghouses to settle and confirm trades. Options markets, such as the Chicago Board Options Exchange (CBOE), similarly list and regulate options contracts. Both futures and options exchanges may list contracts on various asset classes, such as equities, fixed-income securities, commodities, and so on.

Forex Market

The forex (foreign exchange) market is the market in which participants can buy, sell, hedge, and speculate on the exchange rates between currency pairs. The forex market is the most liquid market in the world, as cash is the most liquid of assets. The currency market handles more than $5 trillion in daily transactions, which is more than the futures and equity markets combined. As with the OTC markets, the forex market is also decentralized and consists of a global network of computers and brokers from around the world. The forex market is made up of banks, commercial companies, central banks, investment management firms, hedge funds, and retail forex brokers and investors. 

Commodities Markets

Commodities markets are venues where producers and consumers meet to exchange physical commodities such as agricultural products (e.g., corn, livestock, soybeans), energy products (oil, gas, carbon credits), precious metals (gold, silver, platinum), or "soft" commodities (such as cotton, coffee, and sugar). These are known as spot commodity markets, where physical goods are exchanged for money. The bulk of trading in these commodities, however, takes place instead on derivatives markets that utilize spot commodities as the underlying assets. Forwards, futures, and options on commodities are exchanged both OTC and on listed exchanges around the world such as the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME) and the Intercontinental Exchange (ICE).

Cryptocurrency Markets

The past several years have seen the introduction and rise of cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and Ethereum, decentralized digital assets that are based on blockchain technology. Today, hundreds of cryptocurrency tokens are available and trade globally across a patchwork of independent online crypto exchanges. These exchanges host digital wallets for traders to swap one cryptocurrency for another, or for fiat monies such as dollars or euros. Because the majority of crypto exchanges are centralized platforms, users are susceptible to hacks or fraud. Decentralized exchanges are also available that operate without any central authority. These exchanges allow direct peer-to-peer (P2P) trading of digital currencies without the need for an actual exchange authority to facilitate the transactions. Futures and options trading are also available on major cryptocurrencies.

Examples of Financial Markets

The above sections make clear that the "financial markets" are broad in scope and scale. Two give two more concrete examples, we will consider the role of stock markets in bringing a company to IPO, and the OTC derivatives market in contributing to the 2008-09 financial crisis.

Stock Markets and IPOs

When a company establishes itself, it will need access capital from investors. As the company grows it often finds itself in need of access to much larger amounts of capital than it can get from ongoing operations or a traditional bank loan. Firms can raise this size of capital by selling shares to the public through an initial public offering (IPO). This changes the status of the company from a "private" firm whose shares are held by a few shareholders to a publicly traded company whose shares will be subsequently held by numerous members of the general public. The IPO also offers early investors in the company an opportunity to cash out part of their stake, often reaping very handsome rewards in the process. Initially, the price of the IPO is usually set by the underwriters through their pre-marketing process.

Once the company's shares are listed on a stock exchange and trading in it commences, the price of these shares will fluctuate as investors and traders assess and reassess their intrinsic value and the supply and demand for those shares at any moment in time.

OTC Derivatives and the 2008 Financial Crisis: MBS and CDOs

While the 2008-09 financial crisis was caused and made worse by several factors, one factor that has been widely identified is the market for mortgage-backed securities (MBS). These are a type of OTC derivatives where cash flows from individual mortgages are bundled, sliced up, and sold to investors. The crisis was the result of a sequence of events, each with its own trigger and culminating in the near collapse of the banking system. It has been argued that the seeds of the crisis were sown as far back as the 1970s with the Community Development Act, which required banks to loosen their credit requirements for lower-income consumers, creating a market for subprime mortgages.

The amount of subprime mortgage debt, which was guaranteed by Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, continued to expand into the early 2000s, when the Federal Reserve Board began to cut interest rates drastically to avoid a recession. The combination of loose credit requirements and cheap money spurred a housing boom, which drove speculation, pushing up housing prices and creating a real estate bubble. In the meantime, the investment banks, looking for easy profits in the wake of the dotcom bust and 2001 recession, created a type of MBS called collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) from the mortgages purchased on the secondary market. Because subprime mortgages were bundled with prime mortgages, there was no way for investors to understand the risks associated with the product. When the market for CDOs began to heat up, the housing bubble that had been building for several years had finally burst. As housing prices fell, subprime borrowers began to default on loans that were worth more than their homes, accelerating the decline in prices.

When investors realized the MBS and CDOs were worthless due to the toxic debt they represented, they attempted to unload the obligations. However, there was no market for the CDOs. The subsequent cascade of subprime lender failures created liquidity contagion that reached the upper tiers of the banking system. Two major investment banks, Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns, collapsed under the weight of their exposure to subprime debt, and more than 450 banks failed over the next five years. Several of the major banks were on the brink of failure and were rescued by a taxpayer-funded bailout.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Are the Different Types of Financial Markets?

Some examples of financial markets and their roles include the stock market, the bond market, forex, commodities, and the real estate market, among several others. Financial markets can also be broken down into capital markets, money markets, primary vs. secondary markets, and listed vs. OTC markets.

How Do Financial Markets Work?

Despite covering many different asset classes and having various structures and regulations, all financial markets work essentially by bringing together buyers and sellers in some asset or contract and allowing them to trade with one another. This is often done through an auction or price-discovery mechanism.

What Are the Main Functions of Financial Markets?

Financial markets exist for several reasons, but the most fundamental function is to allow for the efficient allocation of capital and assets in a financial economy. By allowing a free market for the flow of capital, financial obligations, and money the financial markets make the global economy run more smoothly while also allowing investors to participate in capital gains over time.

Why Are Financial Markets Important?

Without financial markets, capital could not be allocated efficiently, and economic activity such as commerce & trade, investment, and growth opportunities would be greatly diminished.

Who Are the Main Participants in Financial Markets?

Firms use stock and bond markets to raise capital from investors; speculators look to various asset classes to make directional bets on future prices; hedgers use derivatives markets to mitigate various risks; and arbitrageurs seek to take advantage of mispricings or anomalies observed across various markets. Brokers often act as mediators that bring buyers and sellers together, earning a commission or fee for their services.