How much thought do you give to a stock's ticker symbol? One glance at one of these short alphabetical codes can tell an investor a company's name, its financial health, where it trades, and even its nationality. And in the penny stock world, it's not uncommon for tickers to get just a little tricky. Here's everything you need to know to decipher penny stock ticker symbols.

Ticker symbols are the one-to-five letter codes that we use to identify a particular stock. Standardized ticker symbols were introduced by Standard & Poor's as a way of clearing up confusion when referring to stocks. Until then, each different exchange - of which there were many - had its own system of identifying member companies.

These days, tickers are second nature to most investors. When MSFT flashes on the screen on Bloomberg TV, we know that they're talking about Microsoft. When we see GE, we know it's General Electric. And GOOG - that's internet search giant Google, of course.

Finding a company's ticker symbol (or a company's name when you're supplied with a ticker) has been made incredibly easy in the internet age. Simply head over to a financial news site like Google Finance, Yahoo Finance, or the like, and type in either the company name or the stock's symbol to get detailed quote information.

It wasn't always that way - for most investors a few decades ago, the newspaper or telephone was the primary source of up-to-date quotes.

In 2007, things changed again. Until then, the length of a company's ticker was a good way of telling which exchange it traded on: one to three letter tickers were the exclusive domain of the AMEX or NYSE, whereas NASDAQ stocks took four or five letter names.

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Under those rules, it was easy to see that GE was traded on the NYSE and MSFT was a NASDAQ-traded company. In 2007, the SEC ruled that companies were allowed to keep their ticker symbols even if they switched exchanges. As a result, it's become common to list a stock's exchange alongside the ticker, something you may have noticed is our standard here at the Penny Sleuth. Thus, when we talk about Apple, we list the ticker as (NASDAQ: AAPL).

Using Fifth Letter and Behind the Dot Codes

While four-letter ticker symbols (like GOOG, AAPL, or MSFT) are the norm with NASDAQ-listed stocks, a fifth letter sometimes comes into play that tells us quite a bit about a company. That's not to say that the NYSE doesn't give detailed information about its companies through their tickers... Instead of an additional letter (since NYSE tickers can vary in length) NYSE stocks use behind the dot codes that follow the regular ticker symbol and a period (i.e. BRK.A). Take a look at the chart below:

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Seeing one of the letters above added to a four-letter ticker symbol gives investors a hint that something's going on with those shares that's beyond the norm. For instance, seeing Microsoft's ticker symbol change to MSFTE would mean that the company was delinquent in filing with the SEC.

Penny stocks that trade over-the-counter, either via the Pink Sheets or on the OTCBB also take the fifth letter codes when applicable...

International Tickers

Ticker symbols can be very different on international exchanges, especially because other languages, like Japanese, often don't have the Western characters needed to type in an NYSE ticker symbol. As a result, many countries identify stocks using numeric codes. There are a couple different code standards for international stocks - the two most popular are the ISIN and the SEDOL.

For the most part, we don't cover stocks that require you to use these codes here in the Penny Sleuth.

While it's true that ticker symbols can give you a wealth of knowledge on a company, the system of ticker symbols that we use for U.S. exchanges is far from complicated. Feel free to print out the chart of fifth-letter and behind the dot codes as a reference for the next time you run into a ticker symbol that's outside the norm.