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How to Determine if a Company is Public or Private

What's the difference between "public" and "private"?

Public companies are those whose ownership shares are regulated and sold to the public on the open market. Although many of the largest and most well-known companies are public, the vast majority of companies in the United States are not. Disclosure laws require public companies to reveal information that would affect the financial decisions of investors, such as the company's financial statements or the fact that the company is facing a lawsuit. Because of these laws, it is much easier to find information about public companies. Public companies are sometimes called "publicly held."

Private companies are owned by a limited group of individuals, usually the principals in the company (for example, the founders, members of their families, key employees). Shares of ownership may be sold or transferred to anyone the owner chooses, but there is no marketplace for buying and selling these shares. Because private companies are not subject to the same disclosure laws as public companies, it is often very difficult to find information about them. Private companies are sometimes called "closely held."

How can I determine if a company is public or private?

Here are several suggestions. You may need to try more than one of these:
  • Try to find the company's Web site and look for a link called "investor relations" or similar heading. Many public companies will provide information here about the stock exchange on which their shares are sold. If the company's stock is sold on an exchange, it's a public company.
  • Go to EDGAR, the free Web database provided by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) at http://www.sec.gove/edgar.shtml. Click "Search for company filings" then "Company or fund name..." and enter the company name. If you find reports in EDGAR, that means the company is public.
  • Look up the company in a library database called Business Market Research Collection, which contains Hoover's Company Profiles. Type the company name in the search box labeled "Company/organization." You may get several results; choose the one that looks like the main, parent company, and click "full text." On the "Company Overview" section under the heading "Key Information," look for "Company Type" to see if the company is identified as a public or private company.
  • Look up the company in Ward's Business Directory of U.S. Private and Public Companies, located in the Bailey/Howe Library Reference Stacks, HG4057.A1 W373. Ward's will tell you whether the company is public or private.
  • Ask for help at the reference desk in Bailey/Howe Library.

© Trina Magi, University of Vermont Libraries, 2002
Page last updated January 22, 2016

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