How to Investigate Old Stocks & Bonds

Old stocks and bonds might be redeemable if the company's still around.
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There might be some old stock or bond certificates stashed away in a trunk in the attic, or you might find them buried in the papers left by a deceased relative. If you inherit or find old securities but you don’t recognize the corporation name, don’t assume they are worthless. Do some investigation before you toss them. Even very old stocks and bonds can may be valuable.

Search the LIbrary

Thousands of companies are listed on major exchanges, and many more trade over the counter. Most aren’t familiar names such as Macy’s, Boeing or Coca-Cola. University libraries are good places to start your search. Universities keep collections of old business documents and publications. The state of incorporation and date of issue listed on the stock or bond certificate provides a starting point. If necessary, ask reference librarians for help. For example, you might not recognize the name Filene’s of Boston. Filene’s was a major retailer in the 1920s, and it became part of what is now Macy’s. You’ll find mention of Filene’s in business magazines from that period.

Use the Company ID

If a library search doesn’t bear fruit, look on the stock or bond certificates for the CUSIP number and the name of the transfer agent. CUSIP means Committee on Uniform Securities Identification Procedures. CUSIP numbers are strings of nine characters that identify a corporation. A transfer agent is a firm that handles securities transactions for a corporation. If the transfer agent is listed on the certificates, contact it if it still exists. With the company name and its CUSIP number, the transfer agent can dig up information on the company.

Digging Deeper

Armed with the CUSIP number, you can search company listings such as the Securities and Exchange Commission’s EDGAR database for free. Another approach is to use a private database such as Dun & Bradstreet’s One Source. Private listings charge fees, but they might offer free access on a trial basis. Finally, ask your broker to help you find the company that issued the stocks or bonds, if it still exists.

Cashing In

If the company still operates in some form, you might be able to cash in those old stocks and bonds. For example, if the company was bought out by another firm, it's possible that you can exchange the old stock for shares in the current company. If the stocks or bonds aren't already held in your name, you’ll need to register a change in ownership. Contact the transfer agent or your broker. Procedures vary, so follow their instructions to put the securities in your name. Complete the form printed on the back of most stock and bond certificates. You might have to provide additional information to establish your right to the securities. For instance, you could need a probate court's statement that you inherited the securities. Send everything to the transfer agent or broker, using certified mail. The securities will be registered in your name, and you can sell them or keep them.

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