Finding Safe Stocks

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Is it safe to buy stock? As an investment category, yes. All sorts of prudent and conservative institutions—colleges, pension funds, foundations, trust departments—invest in stocks.

There is, technically, greater risk in common stocks than in preferred stocks or bonds because the latter two have prior claims on the earnings and assets of the issuing company. But as any experienced investor can tell you, there are many not-unusual situations in which a common stock can be viewed as a better—safer—investment than the issues ahead of it. Or, take the common stocks of corporations like General Electric and Union Carbide. These, as it happens, are the only issues on the companies' books. Who would argue that the bonds of even a first-class railroad, for example, were necessarily safer?

Safety also depends, to an extent, on the price at which the stock was bought. A company may be solid as a rock, but eager investors may have bid its stock to an unrealistically high level in terms of the per-share earnings likely to be attained. If a quarterly or year-end earnings statement does not bear out the optimism of the eager buyers, they may begin to unload. The man who has bought near the top and wants to hang on may see a dismaying depreciation in his holdings, even though, by all investment standards, he does own a good, safe stock.

The point is, some stocks are safer than others, and the value of all stocks may shift and vary and thereby alter temporarily their safety—the possibility of cashing them at the price paid—for the investor.

It is not hard to find a safe stock, if by that you mean one representing a lively, alert, efficient company that is unlikely to collapse and fail. While not every stock listed on the New York Stock Exchange is a daisy, the mere fact that it has met the requirements for listing says much in its favor. For one thing, to obtain listing a company must agree to report its financial condition regularly. This alone makes it possible to evaluate the company's performance and prospects, and thus estimate whether its stock is a good buy.

This in not to say that unlisted stocks or stocks carried on other exchanges are chancy. As you can quickly discover, some rather fine companies are not on the so-called Big Board—the New York Stock Exchange. The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company, Humble Oil, and Creole Petroleum are listed on the American Stock Exchange. Such representative companies as Anheuser Busch, Eli Lilly, and Time, Inc. are unlisted, and traded only in the over-the-counter market. Few insurance companies and no banks—both quite stable stock categories—are listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

Still and all, the new investor will be wise to confine his dealings to stocks that are relatively well-known and have a ready market. For out of the estimated 5,000 public, stock-issuing corporations in the United States there are, inescapably, some dogs. They do not have to be thieving and corrupt. Poor management, wobbly financing, and an inability to keep pace with the times in production and distribution are reason enough for the investor to avoid them.

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