What Is a Market Maker?

Market Makers Explained In 4 Minutes or Less

Market Makers
Photo:

The Balance / Nusha Ashjaee

Definition

Every stock or security needs a market of buyers and sellers in order to move on the exchanges. Market makers are high-volume traders that literally "make a market" for securities by always standing at the ready to buy or sell. They profit on the bid-ask spread and they benefit the market by adding liquidity.

Definition and Example of a Market Maker

Whenever an investment is bought or sold, there must be someone on the other end of the transaction. If you want to buy 100 shares of XYZ Company, for example, you must find someone who wants to sell 100 shares of XYZ. It's unlikely, though, that you will immediately find someone who wants to sell the exact number of shares you want to buy. This is where market makers come in.

Market makers—usually banks or brokerage companies—are always ready to buy or sell at least 100 shares of a given stock at every second of the trading day at the market price. They profit from the bid-ask spread, and they benefit the market by adding liquidity.

Note

Market demands dictate where market makers set their bid prices (what they're willing to pay for shares) and ask prices (how much they're demanding), but market makers must always quote both prices for their trades.

Some types of market makers are known as "specialists." A specialist is a type of market maker who operates on certain exchanges, including the New York Stock Exchange. Although their functions are similar, specialists focus more on facilitating trades among brokers directly on the floor of an exchange. A specialist is one type of market maker who often focuses on trading specific stocks.

How a Market Maker Works

This system of quoting bid and ask prices is good for traders. It allows them to execute trades more or less whenever they want. When you place a market order to sell your 100 shares of XYZ, for example, a market maker will purchase the stock from you, even if it doesn't have a seller lined up. The opposite is true, as well, because any shares the market maker can't immediately sell will help fulfill sell orders that will come in later.

Market makers are required to continually quote prices and volumes at which they are willing to buy and sell. Orders larger than 100 shares could be filled by multiple market makers. This process helps to maintain consistency with markets.

Note

In times of volatility, the relatively stable demand of market makers keeps the buying-and-selling process moving.

When an entity is willing to buy or sell shares at any time, it adds a lot of risk to that institution's operations. For example, a market maker could buy your shares of common stock in XYZ just before XYZ's stock price begins to fall. The market maker could fail to find a willing buyer, and, therefore, they would take a loss. That's why market makers want compensation for creating markets. They earn their compensation by maintaining a spread on each stock they cover.

For example, a market maker may be willing to purchase your shares of XYZ from you for $100 each—this is the bid price. The market maker may then decide to impose a $0.05 spread and sell them at $100.05—this is the ask price.

The difference between the ask and bid price is only $0.05, but the average daily trading volume for XYZ might be more than 6 million shares. If a single market maker were to cover all of those trades and make $0.05 off each one, they'd earn more than $300,000 every day.

What It Means for Individual Investors

The speed and simplicity with which stocks are bought and sold can be taken for granted, especially in the era of app investing. It takes just a few taps to place an order with your brokerage firm, and depending on the type of order, it can be executed within seconds.

Without market makers, however, trading would slow down significantly. It would take considerably longer for buyers and sellers to be matched with one another. This would reduce liquidity, making it more difficult for you to enter or exit positions and adding to the costs and risks of trading.

Financial markets need to operate smoothly because investors and traders prefer to buy and sell easily. Without market makers, it's unlikely that the market could sustain its current trading volume. This would reduce the amount of money available to companies, and in turn, their value.

Key Takeaways

  • Market makers encourage market liquidity by standing ready to buy and sell securities at any time of day.
  • Without market makers, far fewer trades would happen, and companies would have more limited access to capital.
  • Market makers profit from the difference between the bid and ask prices on their trades.
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Sources
The Balance uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. "Market Centers: Buying and Selling Stock."

  2. Investor.gov. "Market Makers."

  3. U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. "Trade Execution."

  4. Investor.gov. "Bid Price."

  5. Investor.gov. "Liquidity (Or Marketability)."

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