As far back as 1991, the Government Accountability Office warned that paper certificates in the U.S. would "hamper the strength of our markets" and noted that Denmark, France and Norway had already gone virtually paperless. The agency, which works for Congress, hasn't updated its report either.
To be sure, the paper-haters have had success. In 1990, there were more than 32 million physical certificates stuffed into the DTCC vault for safekeeping. Now there are only about 1.2 million.
States have gradually gotten rid of laws that required companies to issue paper shares when asked. The DTCC now charges $500 to brokers who want to withdraw paper certificates.
In 2004, the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, a trade group, distributed an imaginary tale of two sisters to help financial advisers persuade clients to go paperless. Louise insisted on paper stocks. Winnie didn't. Guess who was better off.
After all, paper stocks are expensive to print and mail. It's easy to stuff them away in the attic or the safe-deposit box, forgetting them until long after the company is gone and the shares worthless.
They get lost: Thomson Reuters, which operates the Securities and Exchange Commission's Lost and Stolen Securities Program, says $48 billion worth were reported missing or stolen last year.
Trading them is also a pain, usually requiring a trip to the post office and a certified signature rather than a few clicks on E-Trade. And keeping track of them can be harrowing. In 2006, Warren Buffett had to trundle a Berkshire Hathaway certificate worth a terrifying $11 billion from Omaha, Neb., to processing in Minneapolis, so he could give the converted shares to charity. Buffett briefly considered FedEx but opted to send someone from his office.
So if paper stocks are so square, why are they still around?
A lot of companies, it seems, really don't mind them -- maybe because they build shareholder goodwill and public-relations cred. Companies like McDonald's and Starbucks, whose certificates are popular among collectors, say they have no plans to nix paper shares.
Playboy had a blockbuster when it decorated its shares with a nude image of Miss February 1971. It was so flooded with requests that it had to switch to a less exciting design. "It just got to be a little too much," says spokeswoman Theresa Hennessey.
Maybe it's also just easier to send them to the few investors who ask rather than argue about paper's failings. "We don't have an abundance of requests," says a McDonald's spokeswoman, who declined to give details.
The cluster of investors who prefer paper not for novelty but for security could prove especially hard to bicker with. Recent computer glitches that sent the market swinging aren't going to convince any of them that their stock is safer when it's a number punched into a corporate record.
In 2007, corporate gadfly Evelyn Y. Davis filed a proposal asking Macy's to issue paper stocks to shareholders who asked. Macy's said it wasn't considering getting rid of them anyway.
She had less success at NYSE Euronext, parent company of the New York Stock Exchange, where for three years she lobbied the company to issue paper shares.
"Hackers can get into computers or even terrorists and destroy them," Davis wrote in the proposal she submitted in 2008, 2009 and 2010.
NYSE Euronext, which went public in 2007, has never issued paper shares. In a response to Davis, it said that eliminating paper stock certificates protected shareholders against extra costs and fraud.
"The securities markets in the U.S. and around the world are rapidly moving toward a paperless environment," the company wrote.
Paper stocks are in such obvious decline that basic statistics, like how many are still floating around, are afterthoughts.
The Group of Thirty, the Securities Transfer Association and SIFMA say they don't have that information. Nor does the Lost and Stolen Securities Program, the World Federation of Exchanges or the International Organization of Securities Commissions.
In 2005, the DTCC estimated that paper stocks were involved in about 0.1 percent of trading each day in U.S. markets, based on transactions the DTCC oversaw. It doesn't have updated information.
SIFMA's last report about how much it costs companies to print and distribute paper stocks was in 2004. (Answer: $250 million a year.) The STA's last report on how much it costs companies per share is even older. (Answer: $1.51 to $4.26.)
Even the DTCC acknowledges that the quandary will likely work itself out.
"With the changing demographics of investors," says spokesman Ed Kelleher, paper stocks "will probably die a natural death in a few years anyway."