What’s a Stock Exchange? U.S. and International Stock Markets

What we refer to as a “stock market” is actually an intertwined global ecosystem. Learn the “who, what and why” of the stock market and stock exchanges.

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Key Takeaways

  • Exchanges aim to facilitate fair and orderly trading of securities and provide real-time, transparent pricing information
  • Participant groups include retail and institutional investors, market makers, and specialists
  • Exchanges are worldwide

We take a lot of things in life for granted. Turn on the faucet and you expect water to flow. Flip on the wall switch and you expect electricity to power your lights. Tap the big green button on your brokerage app and you expect to see stock in your account.

But on the back end, there’s a complex web of exchanges and financial players—an ecosystem we often refer to as the “stock market”—that works together in order to facilitate that trade. Let’s look at who’s who and what’s what behind this process.

What Is a Stock and Why Do We Need a Market?

A share of stock represents ownership in a company, essentially a claim on corporate earnings and assets. Shares can be bought directly from a company in the primary market—usually through an initial public offering, or IPO—but after that, the company has no obligation to buy or sell their shares back to investors. This is where the secondary market comes into play.

In the secondary market, traders, investors, and intermediaries trade equities between and among themselves. The majority of these transactions take place on a stock exchange. Without a robust and active secondary market, stocks would likely trade less frequently and become more illiquid, creating wider bid/ask spreads and potentially higher transaction costs.

Stock market makers and main players

What Is an Exchange, and Who Are They?

In the United States, two of the most well-known stock exchanges are the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) and the Nasdaq. The role of an exchange is to facilitate fair and orderly trading for all participants as well as to provide real-time, transparent pricing information for listed stocks. The NYSE, a subsidiary of the Intercontinental Exchange Group (ICE), has a physical trading floor where a portion of trade volume is conducted, while the Nasdaq is all electronic. Other electronic marketplaces include Bats and IEX.

There are also several exchanges listing options on equities, such as Cboe Global Markets, which acquired Bats Exchange in 2017. Nasdaq and NYSE also operate options exchanges. All U.S. stock and options exchanges are regulated by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

CME Group, which owns the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, Chicago Board of Trade, NYMEX, and Comex, lists futures contracts and options on futures, covering asset classes such as stock indices, currencies, interest rates, agricultural commodities, energy products, and metals. ICE also lists some soft commodity, energy, and financial futures and options. Futures and options on futures are regulated by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC). 

Exchanges Are Worldwide

Although some U.S. exchanges are household names, they’re not a U.S. invention, and some foreign exchanges post significant trading volume. The Amsterdam Stock Exchange, created by the Dutch East India Company in 1602, is considered the first stock exchange, although the London Stock Exchange traces its roots back to the 1571 Royal Exchange.

Nowadays, almost every country in the world has its own stock market, sometimes called a bourse, although in some cases a regional exchange will account for most of the trading volume across a geographic area. And sometimes, the leaderboard changes. For example, London has been a traditional center of trading and clearing in Europe, but the Brexit referendum and Britain’s impending departure from the European Union could bring about a shift to mainland banking centers such as Frankfurt, the German banking center and home to the European Central Bank.  

In Asia, the market is made up of many nations, each with its own identity and regulatory structure. It’s a mixture of developed and developing countries, tightly knit by geography, commerce, and foreign investment. For individuals, however, the fragmented regulatory structure can be an impediment to direct investment.  


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