17

If I sold some shares through my stock broker, is there a way to find out who bought the shares I sold? Or is the transaction anonymous, where the buyer(s) and seller(s) will not be able to know the identity of the party they are trading with? I am mostly asking this out of curiosity, to understand if and how stock transactions are anonymous.

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  • 4
    @Aron How is fungibility relevant? If I am selling a fungible item, does it automatically make the buyer anonymous?
    – Flux
    Apr 29 at 7:27
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    yes it does. As long as that item is co-mingled with any item of the same asset class, it would be impossible for you to say, which share is yours. I assume you are not an institutional investor, so at almost every stage of the transaction, your shares are co-mingled with dozens of other shares. Those shares maybe bought by algos working for companies that buys shares for their clients... Additionally there is the possibility of these assets being bought indirectly via derivatives or financing trades.
    – Aron
    Apr 29 at 9:03
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    Take another fungible market, the electricity grid. For a given generator, and a given kWh. Who was the buyer of that electricity?
    – Aron
    Apr 29 at 9:05
  • 6
    @Aron Fungibility is not the reason electricity behaves that way. Take another fungible market, bottled water. For a given bottle of water, who was the buyer?
    – user253751
    Apr 29 at 9:53
  • 5
    @user253751 One bottle could be poisoned, while another is pure, so they're not necessarily fungible.
    – Barmar
    Apr 29 at 14:24

7 Answers 7

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Since you didn’t specify a jurisdiction/market, I will use mine:

For U.S. exchanges, the Depository Trust and Clearing Corporation is the seller for every buyer and the buyer for every seller. So, tautologically, the DTCC bought the shares you sold.

Also, the DTCC exchanges shares on behalf of brokers, so even if you pierced that veil it would say that Vanguard, or Charles Schwab, or Robinhood, purchased your shares. It’s bookkeeping all the way down.

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    "Book-keeping all the way down"! :) Apr 30 at 17:41
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Your question reminds me of a quote from IRS pub 550 I recently stumbled across:

Indirect transactions.

You cannot deduct your loss on the sale of stock through your broker if, under a prearranged plan, a related party buys the same stock you had owned. This does not apply to a trade between related parties through an exchange that is purely coincidental and is not prearranged.

To me that quote tells me that most people never know who buys the shares they sell.

I also can't understand what advantage providing this information would give to the people involved in these transactions. The previous owner of the shares doesn't need to provide the tax id number of the person who bought them. All the tracking required is done by the brokers.

Today with High-frequency trading, Day traders, and the ability to purchase fractions of a share, tracking is even more difficult. The bunch of shares you sold could have traded hands multiple times, and been subdivided between multiple investors by the end of the day.

In addition most shares are held in the “street name” of the broker, rather than under the name of any particular investor. So even if your broker provided this service for you it would fail the moment the shares went to a competing broker.

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  • The only advantage I can see is if you had a reason not to sell to a particular party. E.g. short squeezers who are trying to sell to each other, but not the shorter. Or maybe someone is attempting to buy enough shares to give them sway on the board (or complete control) or something. Anyway, I can't imagine that kind of market discrimination would or should be legal.
    – BlackThorn
    Apr 28 at 16:08
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    I think the last paragraph is probably the most pertinent for most people. When you sell your shares, the broker may not even have a buyer at that moment.
    – JimmyJames
    Apr 28 at 20:17
  • Isn't the point that you can't evade wash sale rules by selling some shares at a loss and having your spouse buy equivalent shares. (Or, say have your brother buy them with a side agreement that you really own them)
    – The Photon
    Apr 29 at 1:29
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    The only reason you can't tell who you sold your shares to is that everything operates at the broker level. Saying that increased market activity means it's difficult to tell who you sold it to is incorrect. Your order certainly matched with one or more other orders on the market. That data is available if you have the right feed. You can't resolve that order to an individual though, that's where it breaks down. The fact that shares are fungible means it's meaningless to attempt to track it after that. Apr 29 at 16:49
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    I suspect this rule you mention was intended to close a loophole whereby two accounts benefiting the same person but taxed differently (e.g. an ira and a non-ira) might make offsetting trades (one long and one short) and use that split null position over time to transfer funds without a tax.
    – Paul
    Apr 29 at 23:19
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In the past there were actual physical share certificates that stock owners held. So many people still have that idea of what modern "holding stock" in a company means.

It's analogous to paper currency vs. deposits in a bank account. Let's say you have $10000 in a bank account. No bank has a stack of $100 bills that is your deposit. You account balance is nothing but a number in their computer system. If you make a deposit or pay a bill, that number changes up or down as needed so that it reflects your current deposit balance. The amount of "money" in circulation has nothing to do with the amount of paper currency available. In fact there is far more money than there is currency.

Stock trading today works exactly the same way. There are no stock certificates (granted you can sometimes get these at a fairly significant cost plus there are still some people who have long-term stock holdings in paper certificates from long ago) there are just account balances at your broker. There is no way to identify your stock vs. my stock other than a number in their computer that says you own 100 shares and I own 50 shares of MSFT or whatever company we're talking about. When you sell the balance decreases and someone else's account balance increases. But there is no "trail of ownership" that says this individual share was owned by A and then B and then C, etc... That information is not kept nor is it important. All you need to know is that on such an such a date you sold some number of shares and they are now gone and you received some cash into your cash holdings as a result.

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    In other words, all shares of the same class are fungible. If Alice and Bob each offer at $1 a share of Acme on an exchange, Carol and Dave each bid at $1 on a share of Acme on that exchange, those offers and bids match and the trade happens. But it doesn't matter whether Carol got "Alice's share" or "Bob's share," and the transaction would be considered equivalent whichever way it matched (if indeed the exchange even keeps track of one-to-one matches, rather than just saying, "two on one side and two on the other.")
    – cjs
    Apr 29 at 8:12
  • @cjs And this matching is literally what the exchange does. It matches orders, not buyers and sellers.
    – 26460
    Apr 29 at 19:29
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    But an order belongs to a buyer or seller (or rather, a market participant). Apr 30 at 12:24
3

Generally you can't tell. Your instruction goes to the broker, the broker transacts with one or more counterparties to complete the sale. The broker might know the counterparty's participant (other brokers) but not the individuals. From memory, in AU at least, the counterparty participant (not the account) is only available 4 weeks later if you pay for the information feed. Ultimately, again in AU, even the brokers have the clearing house to contend with and it's all netted out anyway so in theory even on a busy day it's possible no stock movement occurs between participants.

There are some edge cases where your buyer can be inferred.

  • A change of significant interest may trigger a market notice. If that acquisition reflects exactly your sale quantity it might be your buyer.
  • A broker might report a cross (in-house trade) to the exchange so they would know the counterparty. I don't think they'd share that with you though.
  • In the above cases, you might buy & sell with your own accounts (though you'd do a transfer in reality).
  • There is an aggressive on-market takeover or buyback which you can pretty much guess who's buying at almost any reasonable price.

But basically, no, you can't know who bought your shares or, conversely, who you bought them from.

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The information is not just unknown, but in large parts unknowable:
Your shares are not necessarily the only ones traded at a trade - there are often dozens of traders participating in a single transaction, all selling or buying at the same price at the same moment. You cannot define clearly who got whom’s shares.

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  • I think this is wrong. Just because stocks from different origins get traded at the same time doesn't mean you can't keep track of how much went in and out from and to what source. In fact government agencies can often track these things (to detect tax evasion or insider trading or other illegal things). It just takes effort and privileges that aren't available to the general trader.
    – Kvothe
    Apr 29 at 8:16
  • @Kvothe I think you're missing the point - what Aganju is saying is that in a single transaction, you could have two people (A and B) selling their shares at the same time, and two people (C and D) buying shares at the same time. In that trade, D doesnt know if he got shares from A or B, and he doesnt care. The same is true for C. Depending on the exact low level functioning of a particular exchange, its possible that even the exchange doesnt know, because the question isn't meaningful since all shares are fungible.
    – BeB00
    Apr 29 at 8:41
  • @BeB00, okay. I wrongly interpreted the answer to imply even more of an uncertainty.
    – Kvothe
    Apr 29 at 9:01
  • It is usually quite knowable. Even if you shouldn't care, with most market data feeds, you can see the brokers involved. Apr 29 at 13:35
  • @GregoryCurrie I think the question is more about the actual people who end up "owning" the stock, and not the brokers, DTCC, and other middle-men involved in the transaction
    – BeB00
    Apr 29 at 15:19
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Though another answer emphasizes the lack of share certificates in modern trading, think of it a bit like this system for trading tickets:

Suppose Disney World is having a special event at Magic Kingdom on a particular future date. It offers a fixed number of tickets (representing the park capacity) for general admission to the theme park that day and those are the ONLY tickets that will be honored for admission that day. Each ticket is exactly as good as any other. These quickly sell out but Disney allows resale of the tickets without any issue.

The Disney store in Times Square has a special room set up with one employee and a big table and a numeric display outside of it. People who have these tickets and want to sell them can take the tickets there. People who want to buy these tickets show up with cash. When a specific person buys a ticket, it doesn't matter which one the employee pulls off the table and gives them, because each one is equally fungible.

Joe brings in 2 tickets and says "I want at least $200 for each ticket" and the clerk notes that down, separately from the jumbled pile of tickets. Mary comes and does the same. Alice and Bob each bring four tickets, noting they want $225 each. Greg brings in one, seeking $1000. The clerk keeps track of how many tickets are available at which price, so after these folks the list says SELL: $200: 4; $225: 8; $1000: 1. The sign outside says 'ASKING: $200'.

Sam comes in and wants to buy one ticket, but is only willing to pay $150, so the clerk notes BUY: $150: 1; and takes note of Sam's information. If another seller in the future came in willing to sell at that price or below, the clerk would call Sam. The sign outside gets a new line which says 'BIDDING: $150'.

Charlie arrives and wants to buy one ticket, at whatever the best asking price is, currently $200. The clerk matches that against the SELL book, pulling a ticket out of the big stack for Charlie and handing it over in exchange for $200 cash. Then the book is updated to say SELL: $200: 3; $225: 8; $1000: 1. Was that Joe's ticket or Mary's, or even Alice's or Bob's? Who knows? It doesn't matter. Joe will get the money since he was first in to the book at that price, but the ticket itself could've been from anybody. The sign outside the door shows a new line, 'LAST TRADE: $200'.

Then, Doug arrives looking for a family four-pack, again at the best offer price. The clerk consults the book and asks for $825, gets that in cash, and hands over four tickets; the 'LAST' and 'ASKING' lines on the sign change to $225. Ed comes in asking for 10 tickets at a price of $225 or better; buying up all the remaining available tickets ('ASKING' goes to $1000) and adding to the order book on the buy side, filled later when another seller comes in - more likely, now that the door sign says 'BIDDING: $225'. In each of those cases, the clerk is matching one incoming order against multiple book orders. None of the buyers or sellers knows or cares who or how many people are on the other side of that order, just the dollar amount and the quantity. Real stock exchanges are like this, but with a LOT more parties involved. The clerk doesn't even have to keep track of how orders were matched as long as all parties get the funds (or returned tickets if a seller's orders aren't matched) due to them. There are a few wrinkles around audits and price improvement rules, but they aren't really needed in this simplified analogy.

Does that help?

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  • Except that in a real stock market, the clerk does indeed keep track of such things. (one of the advantages of computers over humans) Apr 29 at 17:31
  • They won't show you the names in it though, to protect financial privacy.
    – WBT
    Apr 29 at 17:35
  • So, the real answer is just: "No, you cannot, for privacy reasons". Apr 29 at 17:37
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    And, it doesn't matter because all the shares are fungible.
    – WBT
    Apr 29 at 20:33
  • Was that Joe's ticket or Mary's, or even Alice's or Bob's? Who knows? While this excessively long explanation explains fungibility, it fails on record keeping. With securities here is a paper trail for every transaction. Apr 29 at 23:03
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I feel a lot of the answers here miss the mark. There are several aspects at place here.

Market data feeds will report trades. The reported trades will contain information about the orders that were involved in that trade. From those orders, you can tell who the brokers were who were involved. So you will have your broker on one side, and on the other side, the other involved broker.

So yes, on a fundamental level, you can see what broker purchased your shares. That's generally as about as much information as you're going to get.

There are answers here that say that because there are lots of orders and trades, it becomes impossible to track. This is incorrect. You just need the appropriate market data feed and an ability to filter by your order number.

A separate question is, can you track ownership of "your" share beyond that?

The answer is generally not, because shares are fungible.

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