Searching for Public U.S. Company Information

Common wisdom among business searchers is that finding public company information is easy, and finding private company information is difficult. Well, yes and no. The problem with public company information is there is too much of it. The problem with private company information is that there isn't enough of it. On one hand, the searcher must concentrate on limiting retrieval, and on the other, the searcher must concentrate on expanding retrieval. Each type of company search presents its own unique challenges.

Company research often hinges upon whether the company in question is public or private. Therefore, it is important to know what you can reliably find for each type of legal status. As a rule, public companies are more forthcoming with data. They are required to be. The law demands a level of disclosure of financial data significantly higher than is required of nonpublic companies. In fact, no national disclosure of financial information is required of private companies. For this reason, public company directories and databases tend to be much more inclusive of financial information. You can find small pieces of financial information that would be hidden from view if the company were private. Since the companies must disclose this public information, you would expect financial company databases to be similar. This is not necessarily the case; major differences exist among the databases that contain public company financials.

In the United States, public companies trade on three major stock exchanges: the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE), the American Stock Exchange (AMEX), and the Over-the-Counter market. The Over-the-Counter market is frequently referred to as the National Market System or the NASDAQ. Some companies are so thinly traded that, although they are technically public companies, there is very little data about them. A company with fewer than 500 stockholders and under $5 million in assets does not need to file financials with the SEC.

You will note, if you regularly scan the stock price listings in daily newspapers, that some papers contain more NASDAQ listings than others. Papers with a national circulation, like the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times, cover the largest number of companies. Regional papers, like the Kansas City Star or the Desert News, list many fewer. Very small listed companies may not appear even in the Wall Street Journal. But you can find information online that you can't find in print. …

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