What Is a Stock Symbol or CUSIP Number?

A stock symbol and a CUSIP number both identify securities traded on public markets. The stock symbol is alphabetic and dates to the 1800s, when the New York Stock Exchange began. It was used to send trade and price information by teletype, called a ticker, to brokers and customers. CUSIP stands for Committee on Uniform Securities Identification Procedures and is a numeric identifier better suited to computers.

NYSE Ticker Symbols

NYSE ticker symbols for decades consisted of from one to three letters. They could abbreviate the company's name -- as IBM or GM, for example -- or be single characters, like T for AT&T; or X for U.S. Steel. The first actual ticker tape was installed by the NYSE in 1923, using a projection system to show each trade, with the security, number of shares traded and price.

NASDAQ Symbols

When the National Association of Securities Dealers began its automated quotation system, called NASDAQ, in the early 1970s, it adopted a four-character symbol as standard. Thus Microsoft is MSFT. Since 2007, however, both NASDAQ and NYSE use either three or four letter symbols, with additional characters to represent special issues like mutual funds or classes of stock.

CUSIP Origin

CUSIP was created by the American Bankers Association when computers began to be widely used in securities transactions, in the very late 1960s and early 1970s. CUSIP created a nine-character code to identify each security. The first six characters, numeric, identify the issuer of the security. The last three describe its class. All American securities are assigned CUSIP numbers, whether they are common or preferred stocks, bonds, warrants or various types of options.

CUSIP Identification

CUSIP numbers identify the issuer of the security and its type and class. Two securities have the same basic CUSIP if they are issued by the same entity. Numbers 001957109 and 001957AJ8, for instance, are both issued by AT&T; under the number 001957. The last three digits of the first number show it is common stock; the second number shows is it a bond.

Who Controls Them

Symbols are registered and regulated by the New York and American stock exchanges. The AMEX followed the NYSE pattern; that market is now part of the NYSE Euronext. CUSIP numbers are assigned and regulated by Standard and Poor's, a major supplier of securities information, under contract with the Bankers Association. Both symbols and CUSIPs are available in various printed and online references.

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