Investors who enjoy the feel of stock certificates can breathe easy. A plan to eliminate the documents all but died last week before the Securities and Exchange Commission.
For some time, a group of Wall Street and banking executives has been looking for ways to speed the settlement time for stock trades. One idea was to do away with paper certificates in favor of an electronic bookkeeping system that would record buys and sells.That idea, however, never gained favor with individual investors. A recent survey showed that four out of five stockholders opposed the plan. About 95 percent said the system would expose investors to losses in the event of fraud, computer error or brokerage failures.
To hear both sides, the SEC called a meeting last week and invited the team of executives, called the Group of 30, to make a presentation. The proposal the SEC received, however, did not call for eliminating certificates, though the group did make other suggestions.
Instead of eliminating certificates, the team proposed that an optional system be built for people who choose not to hold the papers. Their shares would be registered directly with the issuing corporation, just as banks electronically keep track of savings accounts instead of requiring passbooks.
Investors who insisted on holding paper documents, however, would have that option. Whether they would pay a premium for the privilege is not clear.
According to Mary McCue, an SEC spokeswoman, the plan to eliminate certificates was scrapped because investors have "an attachment" to the papers. However, SEC officials and some Wall Street executives are quietly hoping that use of documents will dwindle.
Institutional trades already are handled by a "book entry" system, as are trades in which private investors own shares held in brokerage accounts. Also, some municipal bonds, Treasury securities and stock options are not represented by certificates.
"In a perfect world," McCue said, "a paperless system might be the most efficient, but the (Group of 30) has moved well beyond that point. . . . The SEC has not taken a formal position."
The group also recommended that the settlement time for stock trades be cut from five business days to three and that transactions between institutions be completed the same day. McCue said the group would return later this year with ideas for meeting those goals.
Groups that represent the nation's 47 million individual stockholders said they supported the idea of faster settlements but opposed forcing investors to give up their certificates.
"Elimination of stock certificates would be particularly unwise during this period, when there is already so much suspicion and insecurity about the equity markets among individual investors," said Ralph V. Whitworth, president of the United Shareholders Association, a Washington group that represents about 64,000 individual stockholders.
"Many individual investors now feel that the markets are shaped by forces which are beyond their comprehension and out of their control," he said. "This is not the time to further exacerbate the individual investor's unease."
But not everyone who represents individual investors sees it that way. Gerald B. Levin, president of GBL Asset Management Inc. in Philadelphia and secretary of the Philadelphia chapter of the American Association of Individual Investors, said he favored electronic bookkeeping.
"Some individual investors feel a little bit more comfortable with the certificates," he said. "They have this nice piece of paper. But as an investment adviser, I tell my clients that it makes no difference whether they hold a certificate or not."
All brokered accounts are insured by the Securities Investor Protection Corp. (SIPC), a non-profit agency established by Congress in 1970. Accounts with up to $100,000 in cash or $500,000 in cash and securities are insured, provided that no more than $100,000 of the total is in cash.
One potential problem with the electronic system is how investors would participate in dividend-reinvestment plans, in which stock dividends are used to automatically purchase more shares.
Most companies require that certificates be held in an individual's name before he or she can participate in a reinvestment program. But with an electronic system there would be no certificates.