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Equity: Definition, Origin, How it works, Components, Importance, Limitations          

Equity: Definition, Origin, How it works, Components, Importance, Limitations

Equity: Definition, Origin, How it works, Components, Importance, Limitations
By Arjun Arjun Remesh | Reviewed by Shivam Shivam Gaba | Updated on January 29, 2024

Equity represents the residual ownership stake of shareholders in a publicly traded company. When investors purchase shares of stock, they are acquiring a fractional ownership interest in that business through its equity. Equity has evolved from its origins in early joint stock companies to become the dominant form of enterprise financing today. Trillions of dollars of market value are now tied up in the equity of major corporations worldwide. 

Equity allows companies to raise capital by issuing ownership shares to investors in exchange for funds. This distributed ownership model has helped fuel enormous economic growth by channeling investments into productive business ventures. For shareholders, equity offers the upside potential of stock price appreciation along with dividends and voting rights. However, equity also carries unique risks distinct from fixed-income assets. 

Understanding the mechanics of how equity works, its key components, valuation metrics important to investors, and limitations of the asset class is crucial for making informed stock portfolio allocation decisions. 

What is equity in the share market?

Equity refers to the value of a shareholder’s ownership interest in a company. Equity represents the original capital paid into a business by its founders and owners, as well as the retained earnings left over after dividends are paid out. 

There are two main types of equity, including common stock and preferred stock. Common stock represents ownership in a company and entitles shareholders to vote on corporate policies and elect the board of directors. Preferred stock has priority over common stock for dividend payments and asset distribution in case of liquidation but does not provide voting rights.

What is the origin of equity?

The origin of equity traces back to the 1600s with the establishment of early joint stock companies like the Dutch East India Company. These companies issued tradable stock shares to investors that provided proportional ownership in profits. This allowed capital raising for risky overseas exploration and trade expansion. Stock exchanges were then formed to facilitate buying and selling of equity stakes in public companies.

The Amsterdam Stock Exchange was established in 1602 as one of the first securities exchanges that allowed shares of the Dutch East India Company and other early public companies to be publicly traded. This allowed the concept of shareholder equity ownership to become transferable as the exchange provided a marketplace where investors could buy and sell ownership stakes.

In the 1600s, England also began establishing joint stock companies like the Muscovy Company and the British East India Company. To finance their operations and expansion, these companies sold equity shares to investors who were seeking profits from the new foreign trade routes. The London Stock Exchange was formed in 1801 to provide an organized share trading marketplace. The origination of tradable equity shares through publicly listed companies was an innovative way to finance risky and capital-intensive projects by distributing ownership across a large group of shareholders. This concept helped Europe dominate international trade and colonization in the 17th and 18th centuries.

In the United States, the establishment of the Buttonwood Agreement by 24 stockbrokers in 1792 is seen as the origin of the New York Stock Exchange. This agreement created a centralized location to trade securities and helped spur the buying and selling of shares in America’s public companies. The Second Bank of the United States, modeled after the Bank of England, began offering stock in 1791, one of the first IPOs in America. The merger of small railroads into consolidated rail networks in the 19th century was financed largely through selling equity shares to investors. As industrialization took root, raising capital through public offerings became an important source of funding growth for large companies like Standard Oil and General Electric, which made their stocks available on the NYSE and other exchanges.

Over time, the concept of limited liability protection was established, which restricted shareholder losses to the amount invested. This further increased public interest in owning stock shares, separating equity ownership from the full risks of private enterprises. Liquid markets in shares also slowly developed, allowing investors to readily buy and sell ownership in companies. In the early 20th century, the establishment of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) following the stock market crash of 1929 brought formal regulation to equity markets. The SEC mandated greater financial disclosures, oversight of stock exchanges, and enforcement against fraud in public capital markets. This provided further protection and transparency for equity shareholders of public companies.

Equity investing continued gaining mainstream popularity through the rest of the 20th century as more middle-class individuals purchased stocks, aligning shareholder interests across company management, employees, and average investors. The 401(k) plan, which became widespread in the 1980s, made holding equity a pillar of retirement savings and wealth management for most people.

How does equity work?

Equity works by representing the amount of assets shareholders would receive if all company debts were paid. Book value shows equity per share based on historical asset costs, while market value shows the equity per share based on current stock prices. Market value reflects investor views of worth more than book value. Equity rises when market value increases relative to book value, signaling shareholders own higher company value after theoretical debt payments.

Book Value vs Market Value
Equity: Definition, Origin, How it works, Components, Importance, Limitations 7

Book value

Book value, also known as shareholders’ equity, refers to the amount of assets shareholders would receive if all of a company’s debts and liabilities were paid off and the remaining assets were liquidated. On a per-share basis, book value represents the minimum equity each shareholder would receive in a hypothetical liquidation scenario. Book value is calculated directly from the numbers on a company’s balance sheet, representing the accounting value of assets minus liabilities. It is based on the historical cost principle, meaning assets are valued at their original purchased costs minus depreciation and impairment rather than at current fair market values. As such, book value represents a relatively conservative measure of company value and shareholder equity. In the stock market, book value per share is used in the calculation of the price-to-book ratio, a valuation metric comparing a company’s market capitalization to its book value. The price-to-book ratio provides perspective on whether the market value of a stock exceeds its underlying book value, as stated on the balance sheet. A high ratio indicates overvaluation, while a low ratio could signal an undervalued stock relative to accounting book value. 

Market value

Market value refers to the current stock price of a publicly traded company multiplied by its total number of outstanding shares. This represents the total market capitalization or aggregate value that the market attributes to a company at any given time. Market value fluctuates constantly during market hours based on supply and demand as stock traders buy and sell shares. It represents the real-time consensus of what investors collectively believe a company is worth, reflecting expectations about future profitability and cash flows.

In contrast with book value calculated from balance sheets, market value aims to capture current worth, growth opportunities, and intangible assets not recorded formally as accounting assets. Market value is considered more relevant than book value for investment decisions since market prices incorporate available information, expectations, and sentiments. The price-to-book ratio compares market value to book value, with ratios greater than one indicating investors assign a higher valuation to the company than the accounting book value. Since market value reflects what investors are willing to pay for shares, it is a useful benchmark for companies looking to raise capital through stock offerings or acquisitions paid in stock. For shareholders, increases in market value directly translate to higher portfolio values and gains on stock investments.

Calculating both book value and market value equity provides a comprehensive view of a company’s financial position. Equity represents the ownership stake held in an asset after accounting for associated debts and liabilities. Assessing equity involves analyzing both the book value and market value of the asset.

What is the formula to calculate equity?

The basic formula for equity is given below.

Equity = Assets – Liabilities


Assets: This includes all things of value owned by a company, such as cash, inventory, property, equipment, trademarks, etc. It represents the total resources or economic value of a company.

Liabilities: This includes all debts and obligations owed by a company, such as loans, bonds payable, accounts payable, etc. It represents the total financial obligations or claims on company assets. 

Equity: This represents the amount left over after liabilities are subtracted from assets. It is the residual share of assets owned by the shareholders after all debts are paid. Equity represents the net worth or book value of the company attributable to shareholders.

What are the components of equity?

Equity consists of components including retained earnings, share capital, net income, dividends, outstanding shares, additional paid-in capital, common stock, preferred stock, sweat equity shares, right shares, treasury stock, and contributed surplus. These elements encompass the profits a company has earned, shares issued, capital received from shareholders, and other surplus funds. Together, they make up the equity section of a company’s balance sheet, representing the total value attributable to shareholders. Equity provides insight into a company’s financial health and shareholder value.

What are the components of equity
Equity: Definition, Origin, How it works, Components, Importance, Limitations 8

1.Retained earnings

Retained earnings represent the cumulative net income a company has earned since inception that has not been paid out as dividends to shareholders. This component of equity shows the total profits reinvested back into the business over time rather than distributed to investors. Retained earnings are important to analyze for stock investors as they indicate how efficiently a company is deploying its profits and influence dividend policy.

Companies with consistently high retained earnings show they are growing their business rapidly and have attractive reinvestment opportunities. However, excessively high retained earnings could signal inefficient capital allocation if the company is not generating sufficient returns on the reinvested profits. Investors should track retained earnings trends over time to ascertain if management is striking the right balance between distributing profits and reinvesting for growth. 

2. Share capital

Share capital refers to the funds raised by a company in exchange for issuing shares of its stock. This component of equity represents the capital provided by shareholders through the primary market when the company first issued shares via an IPO or FPO. The amount of share capital indicates the equity financing a company has raised historically.

For stock investors, assessing share capital provides insights into the ownership structure, valuation, and capitalization of a company. Higher share capital means the company has diluted existing shareholders significantly by issuing substantial amounts of new shares. Analyzing the trend in share capital demonstrates the company’s ability to raise financing for growth and expansion. Companies with stagnant share capital have limited access to equity financing. 

3. Net income

Net income, also known as net profit, refers to a company’s total earnings after accounting for all expenses, taxes, and other costs. Net income is a key component of equity and a critical metric for stock investors to assess profitability. Higher net income indicates greater profitability and earnings power, which makes the company more fundamentally attractive to investors.

Analyzing trends in net income over time reveals the growth trajectory and consistency of profits. Comparing net income to revenue shows the company’s profit margins and operating efficiency. Net income is also used to calculate earnings per share, an important valuation metric. Companies that sustainably grow net income tend to see stock price appreciation over time. 

4. Dividends

Dividends refer to the distribution of earnings paid out to shareholders as compensation for investing in the company’s stock. Dividends are paid from the company’s net income and impact retained earnings. For investors, dividends represent a tangible return on their capital investment in addition to potential stock price appreciation. Investors should analyze the dividend policy, payout ratio, and history to determine the income potential of a stock. Some stocks offer high dividend yields, which appeal to income-oriented investors.

However, high dividend payouts also mean less retained earnings for growth. Stocks with consistent dividend growth attract investors as it signals earnings stability. Dividends are a major component of shareholder return, and evaluating the dividend profile provides critical insights for stock investors on valuation, growth vs income orientation, profitability, and management’s capital allocation strategy.

5. Outstanding shares

Outstanding shares refer to the stock currently held by all shareholders, including institutional investors and the public. The number of outstanding shares is a key metric for stock investors as it determines market capitalization and indicates the size of a company. Higher outstanding shares mean the company has diluted ownership through issuing substantial amounts of stock.

Investors should analyze outstanding shares over time to gauge the dilution and equity financing needs of the company. Comparing outstanding shares to floats shows the influence of insider and institutional ownership on stock liquidity. Stocks with fewer outstanding shares tend to have higher prices and volatility. Understanding outstanding shares allows investors to value a stock properly and determine earnings per share.

6. Additional paid-in capital

Additional paid-in capital represents the amount shareholders have paid for stock in excess of its par value. The excess amount is recorded as additional paid-in capital rather than share capital when a company issues stock above par value. For investors, high additional paid-in capital indicates investors have provided substantial capital, reflecting confidence in the company’s prospects. It also means the company has had fundraising success through equity financing.

Analyzing trends in additional paid-in capital demonstrates the company’s ability to attract new investments for growth. However, consistent reliance on additional paid-in capital could signal dependence on equity dilution rather than operating profits to finance the business. Assessing additional paid-in capital provides useful insights into shareholder value, capital structure, and historical financing moves for stock investors evaluating a company.

7. Common stock

Common stock represents ownership shares that provide equity holders voting rights and a claim on earnings and assets after all preferred shareholders. For investors, common stock offers potential upside as the stock price appreciates but also higher risk compared to debt or preferred shares. Analyzing the common stock share price trend over time provides insights into growth and investor sentiment.

Comparing the number of common shares outstanding to other equity provides a perspective on ownership structure. Assessing voting rights per share reveals the degree of control held by common shareholders. Dividends paid on common stock indicate the base returns. Evaluating the dynamics of common stock ownership, including valuation, dividends, voting influence, and risks, is crucial for stock investors, as common shares are the primary vehicle for public investors to obtain an equity stake and returns.

8. Preferred stock

Preferred stock represents an equity stake that holds higher priority than common stock but lower priority than debt with regard to claims on assets and earnings. Preferred shareholders receive set dividend payments before common shareholders and hold precedence in bankruptcy. For investors, preferred stock offers more consistent income than common stock with higher priority claims.

However, preferred stock usually comes with no voting rights and limited upside as the share price appreciation is capped. Analyzing the dividend yield, credit rating, redemption terms, and participation rights allows investors to evaluate the risk-return profile of a preferred share investment. While less risky than common stock, preferred shares still carry more risk than bonds. Assessing the role of preferred shares provides critical insights for stock investors on the capital structure, ownership profile, and priority of payments.

9. Sweat equity shares

Sweat equity shares refer to stock or equity options offered by a company to its employees or directors in return for their services. Sweat equity provides ownership incentives to key talent who contribute to a company’s growth and success. For investors, sweat equity is an important consideration as it dilutes other shareholders and transfers ownership to management and employees.

Analyzing the proportion of sweat equity relative to outstanding shares indicates the degree of dilution. Large sweat equity portions could signal misalignment with external investors. However, modest sweat equity helps attract and retain talent crucial for execution and shareholder value creation. Evaluating the vesting conditions provides insight into long-term retention incentives. 

10. Right shares

Right shares refer to additional new shares issued pro-rata to existing shareholders based on their holdings at a discounted price. Companies offer rights issues to raise capital while avoiding dilution from issuing shares to new investors. For existing investors, the right shares allow for increasing their equity stake at an attractive valuation. Analyzing rights offering size, timing, and frequency provides insights into a company’s need for capital and growth strategy. Frequent rights issues could indicate dependence on equity financing rather than operating cash flows to fund expansion.

However, occasional rights offerings in moderation strategically raise growth capital while aligning with current shareholder interests. Assessing the uptake and participation in past offerings demonstrates shareholder confidence. Evaluating rights share history and dynamics offers useful perspectives for stock investors on financing needs, dilution, valuation, and shareholder alignment.

11. Treasury stock

Treasury stock refers to a company’s own repurchased shares that are being held by the company and are no longer outstanding. Companies buy back stock to invest excess cash, boost shares outstanding, or for employee stock plans. For investors, treasury stock reduces the number of shares on the open market, increasing scarcity and support for the share price. Analyzing the volume of treasury stock demonstrates capital allocation priorities.

Large treasury stock could signal undervaluation or a dearth of growth opportunities. However, efficient repurchase programs enhance shareholder value. Evaluating treasury stock levels over time provides useful indicators of management confidence, valuation, and demand dynamics for stock investors.

12. Contributed surplus

Contributed surplus represents the accumulated contributions to equity made by shareholders that exceed the par value of shares issued. It arises from additional paid-in capital, share premiums, or revaluation of assets. For stock investors, a high contributed surplus indicates shareholders have substantially invested in the company, signaling confidence in the business prospects. Analyzing trends in contributed surplus provides insights into the company’s historical fundraising and ability to attract equity financing above par value.

However, increasing contributed surplus could also suggest dependence on new share issuances rather than operational profits to finance the balance sheet. Assessing the size and evolution of contributed surplus helps investors evaluate the vibrancy of a company’s equity financing and interpret its balance sheet strength. Contributed surplus provides key perspectives on shareholders’ capital commitments and the company’s financing strategy for stock investment analysis.

The major components of shareholders’ equity reflect the various sources of invested capital as well as the cumulative income and gains retained in the business. Analyzing equity accounts helps assess the company’s capital structure and health.

Why is equity important?

Equity is important as it represents the residual ownership value and financial stake that shareholders have in a company. They are purchasing equity and becoming a partial owner of that business when an investor buys shares of a company’s stock. Equity gives shareholders certain rights and benefits that make it a useful asset class for building wealth over the long run. 

How to conduct equity research?

Strike is the best solution for conducting comprehensive equity research. Strike provides tools to analyze fundamentals, valuations, and trends for any public company. Investors use Strike to efficiently research stocks and make informed investment decisions.

What are the limitations of equity?

The limitations of equity are the various risks and drawbacks investors must weigh when participating in stock markets, including heightened volatility, potential for permanent losses, lack of cash flow, liquidity challenges, vulnerability to market swings, and exposure to factors beyond company fundamentals. 

One of the most well-known features of the stock market is its volatility. Stock prices fluctuate constantly, sometimes dramatically, in response to news, economic data, investor sentiment, and other factors. While volatility presents opportunities for quick profits when stock prices rise, it also means equities rapidly lose value during downturns. This makes equities a riskier asset class than fixed-income products like bonds or savings accounts, which offer guaranteed returns. Investors need a high-risk tolerance to withstand equity volatility.

Investors face the risk of permanent impairment of capital if a stock falls and does not recover in value. Bondholders potentially recover some of their principal when a bond issuer defaults. But if a stock drops 50% or more and the company goes bankrupt, that capital is permanently lost. This distinguishes equities from debt instruments, where as long as the bond issuer does not default, investors wait until maturity to recover their principal. Equity investors must be prepared for the possibility of permanent losses.

While stocks generate very high returns in short periods, over the long run, their upside is limited to the earnings growth rate of the company. Since corporate earnings cannot rise 25% or more in perpetuity, neither is the stock price. Bond coupon payments, on the other hand, are contractual obligations the issuer must pay as long as they do not default. So bonds generate stable, consistent returns over long horizons, while the upside of equities is constrained by business fundamentals.

What is the difference between equity & stock?

Equity and stock are related but distinct concepts in stock markets. Equity refers to the value of an asset after accounting for any debts or liabilities tied to that asset. For a company, equity represents the net assets owned by the shareholders. Stock refers specifically to shares of ownership issued by a company. Owning stock gives shareholders fractional ownership of the company.

Equity is considered a company’s net worth – its total assets minus its total liabilities. This represents the amount that would be returned to shareholders if all of a company’s assets were liquidated and debts repaid. Equity comes from two main sources, mainly money originally invested by shareholders through stock purchases and retained earnings that represent cumulative retained profits over the life of the company. So, while stock relates to the specific shares issued by a company, equity encompasses the total value owned by shareholders.

Stock represents ownership in a company divided into shares. These shares are issued by companies to raise capital from public investors through stock exchanges like the NYSE or Nasdaq. The total value of stocks issued represents one portion of a company’s equity. Stocks give shareholders certain rights, including the right to vote on corporate matters and receive a portion of company profits in the form of dividends. Unlike equity, which reflects total shareholder value, stock focuses specifically on the shares outstanding.

What is a return on equity?

Return on equity (ROE) is an important metric for investors to consider when analyzing potential stock investments. ROE measures how efficiently a company generates profits from shareholder equity. In other words, it shows how well the company uses investments from shareholders to generate net income. For stock market investors, ROE indicates how much net income the company produces for each dollar of shareholder equity. 

A higher ROE generally indicates that a company is using shareholders’ investments effectively to grow profits. It suggests the company is generating substantial net income from a relatively small equity base. This appeals to stock investors since it means their investment rupees have the potential to produce significant returns. On the other hand, a lower ROE implies the company is less efficient at converting shareholder investments into profit. 

Is equity an asset?

No, equity is not considered an asset. While equity represents the total net worth and shareholder value of a company, it does not meet the accounting definition of an asset. Assets represent economic resources owned by a company, like cash, inventory, or property. These tangible and intangible assets have future economic value that is quantified. Equity does not directly generate future economic benefits but rather derives from the assets.

Equity reflects the residual value left over after liabilities are deducted from assets, representing the net worth belonging to shareholders. However, this net worth figure does not qualify as a separable resource or asset by itself. Thus, from an accounting standpoint with regard to stock market valuations, equity is viewed not as an asset itself but rather as the residual interest of shareholders resulting from the assets.

What is total equity?

Total equity refers to the total value of shareholders’ equity in a company. It represents the amount of money that would be returned to shareholders if all of the assets were liquidated and all of the company’s debt was paid off. In stock marketing, total equity provides an indication of a company’s net worth. A higher total equity generally indicates a more financially stable company. Total equity is calculated by subtracting total liabilities from total assets.

A company’s balance sheet is represented by the shareholders’ equity section, which includes common stock, retained earnings, and additional paid-in capital. Investors look at the total equity of a company as one metric to evaluate the overall financial health and stability when making investment decisions. A company with higher total equity relative to debt is considered less risky than a company with lower equity.

Arjun Remesh

Head of Content

Arjun is a seasoned stock market content expert with over 7 years of experience in stock market, technical & fundamental analysis. Since 2020, he has been a key contributor to Strike platform. Arjun is an active stock market investor with his in-depth stock market analysis knowledge. Arjun is also an certified stock market researcher from Indiacharts, mentored by Rohit Srivastava.

Shivam Gaba

Reviewer of Content

Shivam is a stock market content expert with CFTe certification. He is been trading from last 8 years in indian stock market. He has a vast knowledge in technical analysis, financial market education, product management, risk assessment, derivatives trading & market Research. He won Zerodha 60-Day Challenge thrice in a row. He is being mentored by Rohit Srivastava, Indiacharts.

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