BOSTON (MainStreet) -- What's in a name? When companies pick a stock ticker, a lot may be riding on that symbol.
The prime real estate of stock tickers belongs to the one-letter IDs of top companies — (T) for AT&T, (C) for Citigroup and the like.
Then there are companies whose tickers either help pronounce the company name or trigger instant recognition — (MSFT) for Microsoft, (GOOG) for Google and (YHOO) for Yahoo. Others come close, but for whatever reason don't go with the obvious. Hence (AAPL) for Apple, instead of APPL or APPLE.
Sometimes a company will even change its formal name to better match the trading ticker. Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Co. was quite a mouthful, until, taking a cue from its MMM exchange name, it renamed itself as the much catchier 3M (MMM).
Then there are the corporate punsters and clever fund managers who have some fun with the name game.
Mattress maker Sealy chose that old comic strip trope for a snoring character when it picked (ZZ) for its trading symbol. Magma Design Automation played off its name with (LAVA).
Internet America, an ISP, broke out the pocket protectors when deciding to brand itself with (GEEK). Dynamic Materials went (BOOM), a reference to its "explosive metalworking" segment.
Natus Medical, which specializes in pediatric and newborn healthcare products, went with (BABY). Auctioneer Sotheby's chose the apropos (BID).
Harris & Harris Group is (TINY), a name meant to remind you that that the venture capital firm specializes in nanotechnology. Piano maker Steinway chose (LVB) in honor of Ludwig van Beethoven.
A few others of note: the specialty of Advanced Medical Optics is summed up with (EYE); online game company Shanta scored with (GAME); Footwear company Steve Madden tied up (SHOO); amusement park owner Cedar Fair has (FUN) and Olympic Steel dug into mythology with (ZEUS).
The alphabet soup of company ticker may be even more important than the companies may realize.
Research by Gary Smith, Alex Head and Julia Wilson of California's Pomona College found that clever tickers can actually help boost the value of a stock. The easier a ticker is to remember, the more likely a company will be a go-to play for some.
The professors write that "eye-catching" ticker symbols "might be a useful signal of the company's creativity, a memorable marker that appeals to investors," even if there is a risk investors could alternately think that a "company feels it most resort to gimmicks to attract investors." Among the possibilities are that "investors recall a memorable ticker symbol when they decide which stocks to buy," the authors suggest.
In their research, the authors of Would a Stock by Any Other Ticker Smell as Sweet studied the performance of stocks with clever ticker symbols from 1984-2004. That portfolio of stocks, they found, would have "beaten the market by a substantial and statistically significant margin," nearly doubling the annual compounded return of a broader array of NYSE and NASDAQ stocks. Overall, 51 of the 82 "clever-ticker" stocks beat the NASDAQ/NYSE index.
"Over the past 20 years, a substantial number of companies have chosen clever ticker symbols for their stocks," the researchers wrote. "On average, these stocks have outperformed the market by a substantial and statistically significant margin. We do not know why these stocks have done well. Perhaps a clever ticker symbol has been a useful barometer of the managers' ability -- ability that revealed itself over time as the company repeatedly exceeded investors' expectations. Or, perhaps, a clever ticker matters because it is memorable and has a subtle, but persistent, influence on investors who buy the stock and on those who are considering a merger or acquisition ... If the latter is correct, then perhaps companies can use a memorable ticker symbol to attract attention."
At times ticker symbols, clever or not, can stir up controversy.
Transcontinental Realty, which uses the ticker symbol (TCI), was apparently confused for Tele-Communications Inc. during an ultimately failed merger with BellAtlantic in 1994. Shares of the Realtor spiked -- for a while.
More recently, lawsuits have sought to protect a company's good name (literally).
In August of last year, Select Sector SPDR Trust sued Invesco PowerShares Capital Management for trademark infringement over a series of ETFs they claim were intentionally given similar names (an XL prefix and, in some cases, an added "S" at the end of ticker were the only differences). Courts didn't get the chance to decide whether ticker symbols can be protected or treated as trademarks; the two companies reached an agreement. As part of a deal, the contested PowerShares SmallCap Sector ETFs changed their symbols.
Some sectors and business categories tend to attract creative ticker names, while others are more thematic. We took a look at five such groupings.
LUV is in the air
Among the more colorful tickers is Southwest Airlines' symbol, (LUV). Though an obvious use of the word "love," the connection to the budget airline isn't all that obvious.
The origin involves a bit of trivia: The company is based in Dallas, Texas, at Love Field. As the researchers from Pomona University found, the company also used the ticker to reflect its random, open seating policy and the claim that it has led to romances among passengers whom fate seated together. Early on, in-flight snacks and drinks were called "love bites" and "love potions."
In a 2004 story, Reuters reporter Jon Herskovitz wrote of how the airline "has received thousands of letters and scores of wedding invitations addressed to top executives from couples who met on one of its flights." An airline spokesman was quoted as saying: "At times we feel that we are the love brokers of the sky."
Other transportation-related companies went with more obvious choices. Avis uses (CAR) and the Guggenheim Shipping ETF sails with (SEA).
Motorcycle maker Harley-Davidson's old ticker, HDI, didn't quite capture the company aesthetic. So in 1996 it started trading by the symbol (HOG), the nickname for the style of bikes it specializes in as well as a homage to the Harley Owners Group.
Onomatopoeia reigns when companies take their cues from the animal kingdom.
The Market Vectors Agribusiness ETF chose the appropriate symbol (MOO), while the competing iPath Dow Jones-AIG Livestock Total Return ETF uses the more direct (COW).
Blackstone's Asia Tigers Fund plays off its name with (GRR). VCA Antech, which owns and operates veterinary hospitals, goes with (WOOF).
Food inspires a healthy serving of unique stock tickers.
Brinker International, owner of the Chili's and Maggiano's restaurant chains, has (EAT). Another national chain, O'Charley's, goes by (CHUX).
Origin Agritech planted itself with (SEED) and the Teucrium Corn Fund sums up its commodity specialization with the easy-to-remember (CORN). The PowerShares Dynamic Food & Beverage ETF hearkens you back to your school lunchbox with its ticker, (PBJ).
Cheesecake Factory went with the obvious choice of (CAKE), while the parent company of KFC broadened its horizons beyond chicken and showcases its other fast food brands as YUM Brands and the ticker (YUM).
Molson Coors Brewing is on (TAP), while National Beverage has nonalcoholic Faygo and other sodas shaking up (FIZZ).
The Dow Jones-UBS Coffee Subindex Total Return ETF trades as (JO) (as in "a cup of ...") and focuses on futures contracts for the mighty coffee bean. Don't be confused though, (JAVA) has nothing to do with caffeine; it is the name of the programming language and platform developed by Sun Microsystems.
Fund managers may be serious, all-business sorts, but there is still opportunity for some creativity when naming their offerings.
In March, Pimco's Enhanced Short Maturity Fund became the very first actively managed ETF to exceed $1 billion in assets under management. The ticker, (MINT), might make you think of printing money, which was the intent for the near-cash, capital preservation strategy of its investments in money markets, longer maturity bonds and investment-grade fixed income securities.
SPDR Barclays Capital 1-3 Month T-Bill ETF went with the simple (BIL) while WisdomTree International Hedged Equity Fund, a "fund of funds," sounds out its strategy as (HEDJ).
U.S. Global Investors, an investment management firm that includes emerging markets among its focus areas, has the ticker (GROW), exactly what one might hope those foreign investments will do for the mutual funds it manages.
Putting some energy into it
The iPath Dow Jones-UBS Natural Gas Subindex Total Return ETN is a mouthful, but its intentionally misspelled ticker, (GAZ), tells you all you need to know.
Depending on what commodity or energy specialty you want a fund to track, the tickers can guide you right to them. There is (OIL) for iPath S&P GSCI Crude Oil Total Return, (WOOD) for the iShares S&P Global Timber & Forestry Index Fund and (KOL) for the Market Vectors Coal ETF.
Green-energy advocates can similarly check into (GRID) for the First Trust NASDAQ Clean Edge Smart Grid Infrastructure Index Fund, (TAN) as in exposure to the sun and the Claymore MAC Global Solar Energy Index ETF and (FAN) for the First Trust ISE Global Wind Energy Index.