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Nationwide, nearly 3,000 companies qualify for and choose to list on the “Big Board,” the New York Stock Exchange. It is the world’s premier exchange, loaded with blue chip stalwarts.

Another 5,500-plus companies trade on the Nasdaq, the over-the-counter system operated by the National Association of Securities Dealers, an association of brokerages.

And then there is the American Stock Exchange, with less than 800 stocks listed. Of these rare birds, 26 are based in the Los Angeles area.

Why list on the AMEX?

While viewed in many circles as a poor cousin to the NYSE, local company chieftains listed on the smaller exchange speak highly of the AMEX’s services and affordability.

Some even say they get greater visibility on the AMEX than on the NYSE, where they would be a smaller fish in the bigger pond.

“When we went public in December 1993, we didn’t qualify for listing on the New York Stock Exchange, but we do now, and we’ve stayed on the AMEX,” said Fred Bruning, senior vice president at Manhattan Beach-based Alexander Haagen Properties Inc., a real estate investment trust. “We felt that by being on the AMEX, we would stand out, and not get lost in the shuffle.”

Even today, with Haagen’s market capitalization approaching $200 million, “we would be a small company on the Big Board,” Bruning said.

Among institutional investors that dominate trading on the Big Board, a “small cap” stock is one with a market cap under $1.5 billion, said Bruning and others.

With so many thousands of companies public but with so much stock buying and ownership accounted for by a relatively small number of institutional investors the battle among many medium-sized companies today is for visibility.

Small-cap and mid-cap companies need to gain the attention and then the backing and support of brokerages, money managers and other investors to maintain or increase share prices.

The AMEX, in part as a survival mechanism, has implemented programs to bring its member companies in front of investors. This happens through meetings with brokerages and analysts, and by creating a Web site that highlights AMEX stocks.

“Our Web site is linked to their Web site,” said Seymour Kahn, chairman of Los Angeles-based Mercury Air Group Inc., which supplies airlines with fuel and other services.

With so few companies listed, AMEX officials are able to provide a level of service bordering on the personal. “They are giving us terrific service. They come and visit us, and practically shine our shoes,” said Jeff Jacobson, chief financial officer at Wesco Financial Corp., a Pasadena-based diversified financial company.

Additionally, some executives expressed wariness of having their stocks traded on the Nasdaq.

“My stock is not manipulated by a half-dozen broker-dealers who play the game on the Nasdaq,” said Kahn of AMEX. “There is a specialist on the floor, and I talk to him. He has never run the stock down, or up, for that matter.”

In the arcane world of security trading, the AMEX (and the NYSE) have floor specialists who control trading in particular stocks. Thus, investors buying or selling Mercury stock buy from, and sell to, a Mercury specialist on the floor of the AMEX.

The specialists provide liquidity, ensuring there is ample supply of stock for buyers and sellers. The specialists, in theory, never artificially create a shortage, or post suspiciously high or low prices, as they are monitored and regulated by the AMEX.

The Nasdaq, in contrast, is a securities cyberworld with no physical floor. Instead, brokerages that “make a market” in particular stocks will post “bid” and “asked” prices.

In some cases, brokerages have manipulated the prices of thinly traded stocks on the Nasdaq, although exchange officials say they monitor trades to guard against such practices.

Kahn said the AMEX is preferable to the Nasdaq because of its specialists, and points out that it is less expensive than the NYSE exchange.

Exchange schedules of charges bear Kahn out: For a company with 20 million shares outstanding, the AMEX charges $50,000 for initial listing, and about $10,000 in annual fees. The Big Board wants about $130,000 to be listed, and $25,000 in annual fees.

Still, there are many companies that leap to the NYSE every year when they qualify for the NYSE’s higher market capitalization or other standards. (To be listed on the AMEX, a company needs a market value on publicly traded stock of $3 million. It is $40 milion to be on the NYSE).

“We felt listing on the New York Stock Exchange would give us more prestige, heightened awareness, and greater credibility on Wall Street,” said Joanne Keats, director of investor relations at Los Angeles-based MacNeal-Schwendler Corp., a computer software manufacturer that switched exchanges this year.

As for higher NYSE charges, “We have greater liquidity, trading volume and more institutional (investor) interest. It does cost more to be listed on the NYSE, but shareholders are rewarded with greater liquidity and a higher stock price,” said Lou Greco, MacNeal-Schwendler chief financial officer.

And among many local Wall Street types, the AMEX is still viewed as something of a sad sack. “I can’t think of any reason to list on the AMEX just look at where the Wall Street Journal puts their listings,” said Dick Israel, a Beverly Hills-based investment banker.

The national financial daily puts AMEX listing behind the Nasdaq’s, and even behind the Nasdaq’s small-cap listings, which includes companies with publicly traded stock worth as little as $1 million.

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