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On Wall St., alphabet is up for grabs
Big changes for three old-time firms mean their single-letter ticker symbols will soon be available.
February 3, 2005: 4:07 PM EST
By Gordon T. Anderson, CNN/Money staff writer
Tale of the ticker
BBarnes Grp
HOpen (ex-Harcourt)
JOpen (ex-Jackpot)
ORealty Inc
POpen (ex-Phillips)
UOpen (ex-US Air)
WOpen (ex-Westvaco)
XUS Steel
ZOpen (ex-Venator)

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Is the single-letter ticker symbol dying a slow death? If so, the reason might be that a solo symbol is less a blessing than a curse.

In recent weeks, three high-profile companies whose stocks trade under a single letter have announced that they will be acquired, and thus lose their old symbols.

Gillette (G) is merging with Procter & Gamble; Sears (S) will be acquired by rival Kmart (and move its stock from the New York Stock Exchange to Nasdaq); and AT&T (T) is to be swallowed up by its former offspring, SBC Communications.

When the transactions are completed, it could leave as many as 11 of the potential 26 one-letter symbols unoccupied, if no other companies assume their places.

As recently as 2001, only two single-letter domains -- I and M -- went unoccupied. Those, former NYSE chairman Richard Grasso often proclaimed, were reserved as enticements for Intel and Microsoft to jump from Nasdaq to the Big Board.

Neither half of the Wintel alliance ever cared. Lately, it seems, neither has anyone else.

Symbolic history

Stock symbols, the abbreviations under which all public companies trade, originated just after the Civil War, with the invention of the ticker, a sort of gussied-up telegraph machine that allowed information about stock prices to be widely disseminated.

To speed communication about the most important companies, the most heavily traded stocks were assigned symbols with only one letter in them. In the early days, such blue chips were firms like the Atchison-Topeka-Santa Fe railroad (A) or J.P. Morgan's U.S. Steel (X).

As trading technology evolved beyond the ticker, the practical importance of the single-letter symbol ended. But the metaphoric value remained, and companies jockeyed for streamlined tickers and the prestige they implied.

When Daimler Benz acquired Chrysler in 1998, for example, financial titan Citigroup was quick to snatch up the suddenly available "C." When Nasdaq-traded Qwest switched to the New York Stock Exchange in 2000, the company cited the allure of the "Q" symbol as one of the reasons.

The last company to obtain one was Vivendi Universal, which in the fall of 2000 began trading as "V." Since then, six firms have lost their symbols -- half of them because of bankruptcy or other operational downturns -- and none has been replaced.

Some solos suffer

For a symbol intended to connote success, a surprising number of uni-letter stocks have been losers. Consider these recent examples:

* Jackpot Enterprises (J). Gaming equipment maker Jackpot was the smallest of the solo symbols. At the height of the dot-com boom, the company launched an audacious strategy to transform itself into an Internet conglomerate. It failed, was de-listed, and the remnant now trades as a penny stock.

* US Air (U). The airline went bankrupt not once, but twice. It's still in perilous shape.

* Qwest (Q). Not long after this telecom upstart joined the NYSE, billions of dollars worth of losses and income re-statements ensued. Next came the SEC investigations.

* Vivendi (V). High flier Vivendi came crashing down, thanks to a wave of financial over-reaches by then-CEO Jean-Marie Messier. His career crashed, too.

* Venator (Z). The retailer fell onto hard times sometime after changing its name from Woolworth. Remember that old five-and-dime? You certainly can't shop there.

On the heels of those decidedly inauspicious results comes this latest wave of news.

Gillette, to be sure, is entering into its P&G deal from a position of strength. But Sears (S), formerly America's favorite retailer, is being acquired by Kmart. That's a recently bankrupt firm whose most famous face, Martha Stewart, is in prison.

Times are even tougher for AT&T (T), which was once the bluest of blue chips. In acquiring Ma Bell, Baby Bell SBC is killing its own former parent.

Boardroom matricide? Seems a fitting metaphor for the fate of many single-letter symbols.  Top of page


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