There is a busy little private company you probably never have heard about, but which you should. Its name is the Depository Trust & Clearing Corporation. See their website. Looks pretty boring. Some kind of financial service thing, with a positive slogan and out there to make a little business. You can even get a job there. Now, go and take a look at their annual report. Starts with a nice litte Flash presentation and has a nice message from the CEO. And take a look at the numbers. It turns out that this company holds 23 trillion dollars in assets, and had 917 trillion dollars worth of transactions in 2002. That’s trillions, as in thousands of thousands of millions. 23,000,000,000,000 dollars in assets.
As it so turns out, it is not because DTCC has a nice website and says good things about saving their customers money that they are trusted with that kind of resources. Rather it is because they seem to have a monopoly on what they do. In brief, they process the vast majority of all stock transactions in the United States as well as for many other countries. And – and that’s the real interesting part – 99% of all stocks in the U.S. appear to be legally owned by them.
In the old days, when you owned stocks you would have the stock certificates lying in your safe. And if you needed to trade them, you needed to get them shipped off to a broker. Nowadays that would be considered very cumbersome, and it would be impractical to invest via computer or over the phone. So the shortcut was invented that the broker would hold your stocks instead of you. And in order for him to legally be able to trade them for you, the stocks were placed under their “street name”. I.e. they’re in the name of the brokerage, but they’re just holding them in trust and trading them for you. And you’re in reality the beneficiary rather than the owner. Which is all fine and dandy if everything goes right. Now, it appears the rules were then changed so the brokers are not allowed any longer to put the stocks in their own name. Instead, what they typically do is to put the stocks into the name of “Cede and Company” or “Cede & Co” or some such variation. And the broker might tell you that it is just a fictitious name, and will explain why it is really more practical to do that than to put it in your name.
The problem with that is that it appears that Cede isn’t just some dummy name, but an actual corporation that DTCC controls. And, well, if you ask anybody about this, who actually knows about it, they will naturally tell you that it is all a formality. To serve you better, of course. And, well, maybe it is. DTCC seems like a nice and friendly company. It is a private company, owned by the same people (major U.S. banks) who own the Federal Reserve Bank. And if they all stick to their job, and just keep the money and your stocks flowing smoothly, I’m sure that is all well and good. But if somebody at some point should decide otherwise, and there’s a national U.S. emergency and/or the U.S. government becomes unable to pay its debts, well, they might just not give you your stocks back. Because legally they own them. Something to think about.
An fascinating article about this whole thing is here. I will include it at the bottom too, in case it should disappear. Not that I can vouch for or agree with everything the guy is saying, and some of it is a little whacko, but obviously he’s been researching this quite a bit. You’ll find very little about it on the net otherwise.