What is a symbol?

Introduction

To many U.S. investors, this sounds like a stupid question. A stock market symbol, or ticker symbol, is a symbol like AMZN or AAPL that you can type into any website (like ours) to pull up a stock market quote or price history. When just dealing with U.S. common stocks like Amazon or Apple, these ticker symbols work great.

However, as U.S. investors increasingly deal with stocks from stock exchanges all around the world, the idea of a simple ticker symbol breaks down, as ticker symbols around the world are not unique. Stock exchanges around the world use "symbols", but unfortunately there is no system in place to make those symbols be unique across the globe. For example, symbol "1722" is Misawa Homes on the Japanese stock market and Taiwan Fertlizer Co. on the Taiwanese stock market. So for international stocks, using just a symbol to refer to a security doesn't always work.

This presents a challenge to ETFs that are required to disclose their holdings of international stocks (most ETFs disclose their holdings on their website on a daily basis). If you are an ETF that is buying global stocks, you can't really just disclose that you own 1,000 shares of symbol "1722", as that won't uniquely identify which stock the ETF is holding. So ETFs have adopted a variety of methods of disclosing what they own.

Alternative Ways To Disclose Global Symbols

There are several different ways that institutions are using to disclose a global symbol, in an effort to make the symbol unique. Let's run through some examples of what people are doing.

Symbol + two digit country code

Every country in the world has a two digit country code assigned to it under an ISO standard - see our countries of the world cheat sheet. So some ETFs that own global securities disclose the symbol that they own plus the two digit country code. So if an ETF owns 1722, Misawa Homes, they might disclose that they are holding symbol "1722 JP". The "JP" is the two digit country code for Japan. Similarly, if an ETF owns 1722, Taiwan Fertilizer, they might disclose that they are holding symbol "1722 TW".

Symbol + two digit Bloomberg exchange code

Every stock exchange in the world has a two digit country code assigned to it by Bloomberg - see our list of global stock exchanges. So some ETFs that own global securities disclose the symbol that they own plus the two digit stock Bloomberg exchange code. So if an ETF owns 1722, Misawa Homes, they might disclose that they are holding symbol "1722 JT". The "JT" is the two digit exchange code for the Tokyo Stock Exchange. Similarly, if an ETF owns 1722, Taiwan Fertilizer, they might disclose that they are holding symbol "1722 TT". The "TT" is the two digit exchange code for the Taiwan Stock Exchange.

Symbol + two digit Bloomberg composite exchange code

Some countries in the world have multiple stock exchanges. So Bloomberg also has a two digit "composite" exchange code that references all stock exchanges in a given country. Our list of global stock exchanges has a column called "Bloomberg composite code" that indicates whether the two digit code is a composite exchange code.

In the U.S., for example, the New York Stock exchange is Bloomberg exchange code "UN" and NASDAQ is exchange code "UW". Note, however, that even though most people think of NASDAQ as one exchange, NASDAQ actually has several exchanges, each with its own two digit exchange code: "UW" is for their "global select" exchange, while "UR" is for their "global market" exchange. So the USA actually has 10+ two digit exchange codes. So if you want to reference any stock exchange in America, you can use the "composite" exchange code of "US".

So some ETFs that own global securities disclose the symbol that they own plus the two digit composite exchange code. So if an ETF owns 1722, Misawa Homes, they might disclose that they are holding symbol "1722 JP". The "JP" is the two digit composite exchange code for Japanese stock exchanges.

Our System On StockMarketMBA.com

For symbols that are traded on U.S. stock exchanges, you can use the symbol to pull up the stock (i.e. use AMZN for Amazon). For globally traded securities, we have adopted a system of putting the Bloomberg stock exchange code in front of the local symbol. So Taiwan Fertilizer traded on the Taiwan Stock Exchange is "TT:1722" on our website. If using "TT:1722" is too hard to remember, you can try putting in just "1722" on our website and if there is only one "1722" in the world, your security will come up. Otherwise, you will get a message saying that there are two "1722" symbols, and you will be asked to pick the one you want.

Security Identifiers

Since symbols don't really work that great to identify a particular security, many institutions will also use one or more security identification numbers to identify a security. There are numerous security identification systems available, that are being used by different people at different times. Unfortunately, there is not one security identification system that has been universally used and adopted -- see our separate educational article security identifiers.

Conclusion

Unfortunately, stock markets around the world have not come together to solve the problem of symbols not being unique. The result is an unnecessarily complicated and confusing situation. Hopefully, someone in the world will eventually step up to the plate to solve this problem. The internet has flourished because there is a simple domain name registration system that is easy to use and guaranteed to make every website unique. There are only 50,000+ stocks traded around the world. It shouldn't be hard to adopt a system to make the symbols globally unique.


All data is a live query from our database. The wording was last updated: 04/15/2020.

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