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institutional investor vs retail investor

Whether you’re a working parent focused on keeping up your 401(k) contributions or starting your first job out of college without giving much thought to retirement, you may not be aware of who trades on the market and how your small slice of securities fits in with the rest of the investing activity. The stock market includes individuals like yourself (retail investors) and large firms (institutional investors) who are focused solely on getting returns for their customers. This article explores how your efforts to grow a nest egg compares and contrasts with that of institutional investors.

Hiring a financial advisor can help you make wise choices for your investment portfolio.

Who Are Institutional Investors?

Institutional investors are corporations and firms that invest large dollar amounts every day. The money they use is not their own; it belongs to other companies and people who use institutional investors because they want the superior returns that expertise can (sometimes) provide.

Common institutional investors are banks, mutual funds, pension funds, hedge funds and insurance companies. If you own shares in a money market fund or index fund, you are using an institutional investor.

In terms of trading activity and sheer number of funds, institutional investors are responsible for over 85% of trades on the New York Stock Exchange. Institutional investors employ professionals who possess deep comprehension of the market. Therefore, they can make quick but complex calculations about buying, selling, shorting and hedging – among other tactical maneuvers.

Since institutional investors trade on such a sizable scale, they pay lower transactional costs when trading. They also can purchase shares that retail investors often can’t afford or are not allowed to purchase.

Who Are Retail Investors?

institutional investor vs retail investor

Retail investors are private individuals investing for their own profit. They trade using their own money, often for retirement and usually conduct their trading through an investment bank or broker. Anyone with a 401(k) or a college fund for their children, for example, is a retail investor.

Since the amount of money they invest is tiny in comparison to institutional investors, retail investors generally pay higher fees for their activity. Additionally, the average retail investor has less investment knowledge and significantly less influence on the stock market than institutional investors. Therefore, Securities and Exchange Commission regulations bar retail investors from especially risky securities and complex trades that more experienced professional investors know how to navigate.

Institutional Investors vs. Retail Investors: Key Differences

There are several differences between institutional and retail investors, from the impact of their investing behavior to how the SEC governs them. Here’s a breakdown of each difference.

Trading Patterns

Institutional investors trade exponentially more than retail investors (think five shares sold versus five thousand shares moving in one transaction). Not only do institutional investors have more purchasing power to acquire the most sought-after securities, the sheer bulk of their transactions can drastically affect prices and market dynamics.

That said, while retail investors may be subject to erratic or emotional trading, decades of experience and data analysis drive institutional investors’ activity on the market.

Access to Resources

Again, an institutional investor’s influence in the market comes from the cash from the companies and people for whom it invests. By trading millions of dollars instead of hundreds or thousands, institutional investors pay less to trade and can buy into riskier funds that have exclusive minimum investment standards.

While you may not always think of information as a resource, it is for institutional investors. Having information that updates every few nanoseconds is vital for institutional investors to move efficiently and profitably in the market.

Although retail investors now have more access to investment information than ever, institutional investors still have the edge. This is because they employ teams of professionals to research and analyze mountains of data. This analysis helps optimize and clarify investing decisions.

SEC Shelter

Because institutional investors typically make choices based on extensive investment data, the SEC imposes fewer regulations on their trading behavior. The leeway allows institutional investors to invest in riskier but potentially more profitable assets.

The opposite is true for retail investors. This is because the SEC enforces regulations that protect individuals trading with less skill and financial clout than investment firms. For example, the Regulation Best Interest stipulates that brokers who serve retail investors must place the individual’s best interest ahead of their own.

Institutional Investors vs. Retail Investors
Institutional Investor Retail Investor
Finances Combines vast sums from numerous companies and individuals seeking a professional’s expertise. Limited to the capital the private individual has access to.
Market Influence High potential to affect markets through the purchase or sale of millions of dollars’ worth of assets. Free to diversify on a large scale or invest heavily in a single company or industry regardless of share price Slim to no effect on markets regardless of investment choices. Usually will purchase shares with lower costs and tends to diversify.
Experience & Knowledge Comprised of professionals with an abundance of exclusive knowledge and experience. Receives updated information first and communicates with market experts regularly. Can obtain information through numerous sources and professionals but lacks timely and complete access to information institutional investors have.
SEC Oversight Fewer restrictions due to knowledge and proficiency; can make riskier, more exclusive investments for possibly better returns. More restrictions to reduce risk and accommodate investors with less knowledge and ability.

The Bottom Line

institutional investor vs retail investor

If you’re investing through an institutional investor, he or she is well-equipped to provide you with excellent returns. However, your professional’s decisions may be more risky or dynamic than that of the average investor. If you’re a retail investor and want to ensure you’re on track to hit your financial goals, speak with a financial advisor.

Investment Tips

  • Whether you’re investing for retirement or a large expense such as education, you want to calculate the possibilities of how big that money can grow. Our investment calculator makes it easy for retail investors to forecast the size of a future portfolio. Investors adjusting your rates of return, investment timeframe and amount invested, to predict returns.
  • A financial advisor helps clients create plans to reach all of their financial goals. Finding a qualified financial advisor doesn’t have to be hard. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with up to three financial advisors who serve your area, and you can interview your advisor matches at no cost to decide which one is right for you. If you’re ready to find an advisor who can help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.

Photo credit: ©iStock.com/kate_sept2004, ©iStock.com/ipopba, ©iStock.com/GaudiLab

Ashley Kilroy Ashley Chorpenning is an experienced financial writer currently serving as an investment and insurance expert at SmartAsset. In addition to being a contributing writer at SmartAsset, she writes for solo entrepreneurs as well as for Fortune 500 companies. Ashley is a finance graduate of the University of Cincinnati. When she isn’t helping people understand their finances, you may find Ashley cage diving with great whites or on safari in South Africa.
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