When I was a financial advisor, we used to get the following question:
“I came across these old paper certificates. They look like some kind of stock. What should I do with them?”
Physical stock certificates can come from any number of places. Most of the time, this happens to people when they’re clearing out the effects of a deceased loved one.
Whether you find an old stock certificate in an attic, safety deposit box, or in a drawer, you might be tempted to just throw it out and move on. Don’t!
Regardless of what you think, there’s no benefit to throwing out old certificates right away. Instead, this article walks you through a recent example, and outlines what you should do if you find those stock certificates.
We used to get lots of emails from ‘prospective clients.’
In almost every case (except for spam), I would usually try to take some time to walk through the question to see how I might be able to help. Most of the time, the person doesn’t become a client. Still, it doesn’t take that long to:
- Point the person to an online resource
- Refer that person to another financial planner
- Simply answer the question to the best of my ability
And if a question is interesting enough, then I really like to see how I can dig into it and see what I can find.
So, enter the following question:
“I have several stock certificates for companies from the fifties, and would like to know what I have.”
So we’ll walk through the research I did to answer this question, and what we found out. But first, what happened to paper stock certificates?
What happened to paper stock certificates?
Back in your Grandpa’s day, publicly held corporations used to issue paper stock certificates. These certificates were usually managed & tracked by a transfer agent.
What is a transfer agent?
Public companies and other large corporations usually use a transfer agent to keep track of the individuals and entities that own their stocks and bonds.
A transfer agent is a trust company, bank or financial institution that keeps track of an investor’s financial information. Typically, a transfer agent handles things like:
- Keeping track of transactions
- Issuing and canceling securities certificates
- Helping investors with a lost or missing certificate
The requirement to have an independent agent handling investor transactions dates was recognized as back as the days of the Dutch East India Company. Before its demise, the Dutch East India Company was the largest publicly traded company in history.
In fact, it was the first time the world had even seen a publicly traded company. And many people attribute part of its downfall to poor recordskeeping regarding its shareholders.
Transition from paper to electronic
Of course, even with a designated transfer agent, paper certificates had many problems. Recordskeeping improved, but was still a manual process. And it was subject to fraudulent activity.
In the early 1970s, the investing landscape started shifting. Several events conspired to force a better system:
- In 1973, the Depository Trust Company (DTC) replaced the Central Certificate Service. This enabled electronic certificates to exist on a large enough scale to support increasing demand.
- In 1974, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) introduced individual retirement arrangements (IRAs). This was a major step in bringing allowing individual investors to open their own brokerage account.
- In 1978, Congress introduced the Revenue Act, which introduced 401ks. This allowed people to start participating in workplace retirement programs and drastically increased investment appetite.
Throughout the 70s, and 80s, incremental technology improvements allowed more transactions to be processed and automated. By the late 1990s, it was clear that paper stock certificates were obsolete.
But what does this mean for the paper stock certificate in your hand? Let’s walk through some options.
Step 1: Gather some information about the stock certificate.
Sometimes, the only information you have is literally what is on your physical certificate. Many times, people inherit shares of stock and have no idea where it came from.
Maybe Grandpa really liked the Walt Disney Company and wanted his grandkids to inherit his Disney shares. Perhaps he worked for a company that issued shares of company stock to its employees so they could participate in stock ownership. But you might not always get the back story on why Grandpa bought those stocks back in the day.
So the first thing you should do is get all the information from your certificate. Fortunately, your share certificate will probably have lots of information. At the very least, you can expect:
- Name of the issuing company
- Number of shares
- Date of issue
- Certificate number
- Who signed the certificate
- State or local jurisdiction of registration. When having to dig deep into a company’s background, just knowing the state (or even the country) where the certificates were registered can help a lot.
You should (but not always) also be able to see the the issuing company’s transfer agent. Finding the company’s transfer agent might give you a point of contact for deeper research.
In our case, we were able to pull up a LOT of information just by gleaning it from the share certificates.
Step 2: Is the company listed on a stock exchange?
Let’s imagine that you inherited shares of AT&T or Coca-Cola. You can probably guess that they’re publicly traded companies (both are listed on the New York Stock Exchange).
Many of the companies you’ll find will probably be listed on one of the major US stock exchanges.
Major US Stock Exchanges
For publicly traded companies, the company’s website usually has an investor services page that can help you determine the value of a share of stock. The most common U.S. stock exchanges include:
Most of the time, publicly traded companies have an investor relations department. The investor relations department will take care of things like:
- Managing the company’s direct stock purchase plan
- Handling electronic stock certificates
- Transfer agent’s contact information
This approach won’t always work for a foreign-listed company. In that case, you’ll have to see what you can find elsewhere.
Companies listed on a foreign exchange
If your company isn’t listed on a major US stock exchange, it might be listed on a foreign stock exchange. This often happens for many companies that we associated with U.S. brands, but are owned by companies located overseas.
Of course, your certificate might not be listed on an exchange at all.
Thinly traded stocks
A common misconception is that all publicly traded companies are listed on one of the major exchanges. That’s not necessarily true.
If your company isn’t listed on an exchange, it might still be traded as an over-the-counter (OTC) stock. OTC stocks (sometimes called ‘penny stocks’) are usually traded from one brokerage firm to another, as opposed to on a centralized exchange.
OTC Markets is one of the largest sources of information on OTC stocks, and has a company directory where you can search for your company’s name.
Step 3: Is it registered with a state?
Sometimes, you might not get that lucky. Your company might be:
- Lightly (or not at all) traded. This would apply to closely-held or private companies
- No longer in business.
In this case, you probably won’t see it on any exchange, or traded over the counter. Your next step should be to look up the name of the company on the state government’s website.
For example, some of the companies I researched were in Florida. So I searched Sunbiz. Sunbiz is the website that contains company registration information for the State of Florida.
You should at least be able to find out:
- Whether or not the company is still registered
- Information about an officer of the company
- Company contact information
From there, you might have enough information to reach out to the company’s transfer agent or legal counsel.
Step 4: Google is Your Friend
If you’re not able to find the state of registration, then turn to Google. I did this for a company where the transfer agent was located in Canada.
I won’t belabor specific Google advice here. But here are a couple of tips to help reduce the size of the haystack you’re searching:
- Search for the company as a phrase (use quotation marks). For example, “Disney Corporation” or “Disney stock certificates” might lead you to a more relevant result than simply typing disney corporation (no quotes).
- Include any information from the certificate that might be useful. This could be state of registration, transfer agent’s contact information, officer’s name, etc.
Expect to spend some time here, as one search might lead to another, and another, etc.
In my case, it turns out that the person who contacted me had inherited certificates for 7 different companies. Most were either defunct uranium mines or Florida-based small businesses. So I spent a Friday morning researching and found out the following:
- 4 uranium mine companies, based in Canada. All defunct.
- 3 Florida-based companies. Two of them were defunct, but one was still in operation. I called to get some more information and ended up talking with the owner (original president’s son). Put them in touch, and hopefully they work something out (not my business).
During this time, I discovered that there’s still a market for old stock certificates.
Step 5. Who buys old stock certificates?
It turns out collectors do. It’s true that companies who used to issue paper stock certificates have turned to electronic certificates.
However, those paper certificates are still a piece of history. And people will pay good money for that history.
And this might be considered a useful last resort for people who realize their certificates are for companies that are now worthless.
While the companies shares might be worthless, the paper form is probably not. Many certificates found online can be valued at hundreds (or thousands) of dollars.
Are your certificates worth this much? Maybe. Maybe not. But something is better than nothing. And at least there’s something cool about finding a nice home for that piece of paper sitting in the attic (or garage, basement, drawer, etc.).
Just like many other antiques, family heirlooms, or ‘collectibles’ you might come across, old stock certificates (and bond certificates, too, for that matter) might have value. Perhaps it’s a lost family fortune, or simply a chance to learn a little more about your family tree.
Either way, DON’T THROW OUT THOSE OLD CERTIFICATES!