Bid and Ask Price: Definition, Example, How It Works

By Laurel Tincher · December 20, 2022 · 9 minute read

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Bid and Ask Price: Definition, Example, How It Works

Bid and ask are commonly used investing terms, and they refer to the best potential price at which a security on the market could be bought or sold for at any given time. In other words, the best price that buyers and sellers would potentially be willing to buy (the “bid” price) or sell (the “ask” or offer price) the asset.

It’s important for traders to understand the bid vs ask price of a security, as well as the difference between the two, which is known as the bid-ask spread.

The market price is a historical price: the price of the last trade that occurred with the security. The bid and ask prices, on the other hand, show what buyers and sellers would be willing to trade the security for now.

What Are Bid and Ask?

If you’re just getting started investing in stocks, you’re probably wondering about bid vs. ask prices. Bid and ask prices show the current market supply and demand for the security. The bid price represents demand for a security; the ask price represents supply.

When an asset has high liquidity — i.e. the market has a high trading volume not dominated by selling — the bid and ask prices will be fairly close. In other words the bid-ask spread, or the difference between the bid and ask prices, will be narrow in a highly liquid market. When there’s a greater gap between demand and supply, the spread will be wider.

That’s why the bid-ask spread is often considered a gauge of liquidity.

Bid Price

The bid price is the best potential price that retail investors would be willing to pay to buy a security.

So if a trader wants to sell a security, they would want to know how much they’d be able to sell it for. They can find out the best price they could get for the security by looking at the current bid price in the market, which would show the highest potential amount they could get for it.

Ask Price

Conversely, ask price is the lowest price investors are willing to sell a security for at any given time. If a trader wants to buy a security, they want to get the lowest possible price, so they look at the ask price to find out what that is.

Bid and Ask Price Examples

Let’s imagine that an investor wants to buy Stock X at the quoted price of $75, so they plan to buy 10 shares for $750. But they end up paying $752. That’s not an error, but rather because the ask price (the selling price) is $75.20.

The current price of $75 per share is the last traded price. But prices can change quickly, and in this case the ask price was 20 cents higher. The bid or buyer’s price is almost always lower than the ask price.

Investors can use limit orders to set specific parameters around the price at which they’re willing to buy or sell a security. This can give investors some control, so they’re not simply paying the current price, which may or may not be advantageous.

Evaluating the bid-ask spread can be part of an investor’s due diligence when trying to gauge rates of return for different securities.

What the Bid-Ask Spread Signals

How far apart the ask price and bid price are can give you a sense of how the market views a particular security’s worth.

If the bid price and ask price are fairly close together, that suggests that buyers and sellers are more or less in agreement on what a security is worth. On the other hand, if there’s a wider spread between the bid and ask price, that might signal that buyers and sellers don’t necessarily agree on a security’s value.

How Are Bid and Ask Prices Determined?

Essentially it’s the supply and demand of the market that sets the bid and ask prices. And many factors can play into supply vs. demand. Because of this, investors who are interested in active investing can use the difference in price between the bid and the ask of a security to gauge what the market thinks the security is worth.

Investors and market-makers can place buy or sell orders at a price they set. These orders will be fulfilled if someone is willing to sell or buy the security at that bid or ask price. Those order placements determine the bid and ask price.

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What’s the Difference Between Bid and Ask Prices?

In any market, from stocks to real estate to lemonade stands, there is almost always a difference between what someone is willing to pay for an item versus what someone wants to sell it for.

A buyer may want to buy a house for $300,000, but the seller is selling it for $325,000. An investor may want to buy a stock for $100, but the sell or ask price is $105.

That difference in price is called the spread, and when the spread is narrow it’s a lot easier to close the sale. When the spread is wider, there is a bigger gap between what the buyer thinks an item is worth vs. what the seller thinks it’s worth.

What Does It Mean When Bid and Ask Are Close?

A narrow spread, i.e. when the bid and ask price are close, means traders will be able to buy and sell the security at roughly the same price. This generally means there is a high trading volume for the security, with a lot of people willing to buy and sell because of high demand.

If demand increases for the security, the bid and ask prices will move higher, and vice versa. If there is a surge in demand, but not enough supply, that might drive the bid price up. Conversely, if supply outpaces demand, the bid price of a security could fall In either case, the spread would likely get wider when the bid or the ask prices outweighs the other.

The Bid-Ask Spread

The bid-ask spread is the gap between the two prices: the bid or buyer’s price and the ask or offer price. There are different factors that can affect a stock’s spread, including:

•   Liquidity. A measure of how easily a stock or security can be bought and sold or converted to cash. The more liquid an investment is, the closer the bid and ask price may be, since the market is in agreement about what the security is worth.

•   Trading volume. This means how many shares of a stock or security are traded on a given day. As with liquidity, the more trading volume a security has, the closer together the bid and ask price are likely to be.

•   Volatility. A way of gauging how rapidly a stock’s price moves up or down. When there are wider swings in a stock’s price, i.e. more volatility, the bid-ask price spread can also be wider as market makers attempt to profit from the price changes.

Who Benefits From the Bid-Ask Spread?

The difference in price between the bid and the ask is where brokers and market makers make their profit.

But traders can also benefit from the bid-ask spread, if they use limit orders to get the best possible price on a desired trade, as opposed to using market orders.

How the Bid-Ask Spread Is Used

When you understand how bid-ask spread works, you can use that to invest strategically and manage the potential for risk. This means different things whether you are planning to buy, sell, or hold a stock.

If you’re selling stocks, that means getting the best bid price; when you’re buying, it means paying the best ask price. Essentially, the goal is the same as with any other investing strategy: to buy low and sell high.

Bid-Ask Spread Impact on Trading Profits

Naturally, the bid-ask spread impacts trading profits, and in fact can act almost as a hidden cost.

For example, if an investor places a market order on a stock with a bid price of $90 and an ask price of $91, they’ll get the stock at $91 per share. If the price of the stock rises 5%, so the bid price is now $94.50 and the ask price is $95.55 and the bid-ask spread is $1.05.

If the investor decides to sell the shares they bought at $91 through a market order, they will receive $94.50 per share. So their profit is $3.50 per share, even though the stock price rose by $4.55. The $1.05 gap in profit reflects the $1.05 bid-ask spread on this stock.

Wide vs Narrow Bid-Ask Spread

What is the difference between wide and narrow bid-ask spreads, and what is the significance of each?

Narrow Bid-Ask Spreads

The bid-ask spread, often just called the spread, is tighter when a security has more liquidity, i.e. there’s higher trading volume for that stock. When you think of big companies, industry leaders, constituents of different indexes like the Dow Jones or the S&P 500, those companies may have higher volume and narrower spreads.

Wider Bid-Ask Spreads

Conversely, smaller companies or those that aren’t in demand tend to have wider spreads, reflecting a lower level of market interest. These trades tend to be more expensive, as investors must contend with lower liquidity.

Impact of the Bid-Ask Spread

The narrower the bid-ask spread, the more favorable it is for traders. If an investor wants to buy 100 shares of Stock A at $60, but shares are being offered at $60.25, that 25 cent spread may not seem like much. It would add up to $25 (100 x 0.25). But if that trader wanted to buy 500 shares or more, the cost of the spread is about $125.

The Takeaway

Bid and ask prices help traders know exactly how much they may buy and sell securities for. The bid price is the highest price a buyer is willing to pay for a security. The ask price is the lowest price a seller is willing to accept. The difference between them is the bid-ask spread, or “spread.”

The spread ends up being a transaction cost, as market makers pocket the cost of the spread.

Since the bid price and the ask price are essentially a function of supply and demand in the market, investors can consider the bid-ask spread as a gauge of risk. The narrower the spread, the more aligned buyers and sellers are on the value of a certain security, and thus there’s higher volume and more liquidity — and lower risk to the investor that the stock or security might lose value (although it could, as there are no guarantees).

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Do I buy a stock at the bid or ask price?

You buy a stock at the ask price, that’s the lowest price the seller is willing to offer.

Is the last price the same as the market price?

The last price is the last traded price for a security, or the last price at which it closed. The market price is the best current price.

Is it better if your bid is higher than the asking price?

The bid price is typically lower than the seller’s price or ask price, so it would be unusual if the bid was higher than the ask. If a bid price is higher than the ask, a trade would occur, but it would put the buyer at risk of a potential loss.

Photo credit: iStock/eclipse_images

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