Getting The Net To Help Build Your PortfolioDean Foust
Sure, there's some truth to those news accounts about penny-stock peddlers and get-rich-quick hucksters lurking on the Internet. The Net has given rise to a new breed of cybertouts trying to hype thinly traded stocks into the ozone, and chat rooms and bulletin boards are teeming with pitches for sand-to-gold schemes.
But if that's the only thing barring you from seeking financial information on the Net, fear not. Cyberspace is vast enough to provide plenty of places to get solid data without encountering the "hot tip" crowd. The World Wide Web, the Net's multimedia section, can provide you with convenient--and often free--access to many major financial publications and other services, such as Morningstar's mutual-fund data. And the low-cost structure of doing business over the Internet has changed the nature of some financial services--enabling discount brokers, for instance, to handle stock trades for as little as $12, and quote-services to offer real-time data for $30 a month. That's far less than you would pay elsewhere. So whether you're a Net novice looking for a road map or an experienced surfer looking to get the most out of the Web, there's plenty of reason to handle your finances online.
News is the fuel that drives the markets, and it's in plentiful supply on the Web. All of the major business periodicals now operate their own Web sites, including The Wall Street Journal, Investor's Business Daily, Fortune, and yes, BUSINESS WEEK. But if you want tomorrow's news right now, among these major publications, only the Journal provides running updates of breaking stories throughout the day. The Journal's Interactive Edition not only posts most of the contents of that morning's paper but also allows users to create filters that catch news on specific stocks and to track their investment portfolios. Through July 31, the Interactive Edition is free; after that, it will cost $49 a year (or $29 for print subscribers).
If you like to check in on the markets during the day, there are two sources worth a look. Charter Media's Briefing service (http://www.brief ing.com) provides updated news and analysis on stock, bond, and foreign exchange markets and the economy. While Briefing's political commentaries have a conservative bent, its Story Stocks page provides nice analysis of stocks making news. And The Motley Fool, an irreverent America Online forum that has a fanatical following, also has a free Web site that now includes a Lunchtime News report posted around 1 p.m. daily. The Fool's Web page includes nightly market reports, plus synopses of corporate conference calls, but alas, it lacks the popular message-board discussions found on AOL.
LONG WAIT. One of the more novel of the free services is PointCast Network, which gathers relevant news from wire services based on a profile of your personal interests, then "broadcasts" your customized news report as a screen saver. You download PointCast's proprietary software for free from its Web site. Warning: Since news updates can take up to a half-hour to download with a 28,800-baud modem, PointCast works best if your company has a fast network connection to the Net or if you pay a flat monthly fee for dial-up access.
If you're too busy to seek out the news, several vendors will bring it to you via E-mail. The best is Quote.com, which for $10 to $43 a month will send you news flashes on as many as 200 companies of your choosing and notify you when one of your stocks trades above or below a specified value, plus much more. For $180 a year, SEC-Live (http://www.seclive.com) will send you E-mail alerts whenever any of 15 specified companies or mutual funds makes a filing with the Securities & Exchange Commission. If you can do without the alerts, you can peruse these same filings for free on the SEC's Edgar site. As of May 6, nearly every U.S. public company is required to file quarterly earnings and other reports electronically.
Given the nature of the Net, it should come as no surprise that some of the best resources are devoted to high-tech investments. TechInvestor (http://techweb.cmp.com/investor/), a Web site produced by the CMP family of trade journals, provides breaking tech news, its own 250-stock index, plus opinions from hot newsletters and its own stable of columnists. And if you want to participate in hip tech discussions, the Silicon Investor site boasts lively bulletin-board give-and-take, with tools that let you create custom charts of favorite stocks.
If it's stock tips you are looking for, INVESTools (http:www.//investools.com) provides access to more than 30 of the more reputable newsletters, which you can purchase a la carte, plus active bulletin boards. Should your taste run more to mutual funds than stocks, most of the major fund families have erected their own Web sites--though many are little more than marketing gimmicks. One useful site is NETWorth, where you can download the prospectus for any of hundreds of funds, access Morningstar performance reports, and screen NETWorth's 5,000-fund database for those that meet your criteria.
So how's your portfolio doing today? Free quote services are pervasive on the Net, provided you don't mind a 15- or 20-minute delay. If you want real-time quotes, the Internet's lower communications costs are enabling providers to pass on the savings: For $30 a month, DBC Online will give you up to 2,500 real-time quotes per day, plus delayed quotes on futures, options, Canadian, and other foreign issues.
Even after perusing all of these sites, chances are you'll need a few tools to enable you to perform some critical calculations. Toronto's Xenon Laboratories has developed a currency converter that lets you determine how far your dollars will go in marks, yen, or 47 other currencies. Need help valuing options, warrants, and convertibles? Try NumaWeb's Webulator (http://www.numa.com/derivs/drivex.htm), which even offers a primer that explains the difference between puts and calls. And the Stock Room (http://loft-gw.zone.org/jason/stock_room.html) assembles such data as domestic- and foreign-market indexes, stock quotes, bond yields, interest rates, and currency tables--and then transforms them into easy-to-interpret graphs.
SAVINGS. After spending all this time surfing the Net, it seems a waste to just place a phone order with your broker (and pay a steep commission for a stock you found via the Net). You don't have to. More than two dozen discount brokers, including Charles Schwab, now allow you to place orders via the Internet. Schwab recently launched its e*schwab service, which charges $39 to trade up to 1,000 shares. But the cheapest execution by far comes from the new eBroker service: $12 per trade for any size order. And eBroker is no fly-by-night outfit. It's part of an established Omaha brokerage complex that also operates Accutrade, K. Aufhauser, and Ceres Securities.
There's one catch to these rock-bottom rates: For their lowest prices, eBroker and e*schwab only let you communicate with their customer reps via E-mail. For $18 per trade, eBroker's sister firm, Ceres, allows you to place orders by either Internet or phone.
One of the best ways to discover other nifty sites is simply to explore. Most of the popular search engines, such as Yahoo! or Magellan, provide links to many investment-related Web sites; Yahoo! alone offers nearly 600 such links. And a few Web aficionados have assembled links of their own: Invest-O-Rama!, the personal Web site of Doug Gerlach, now boasts links to more than 2,000 investment-related sites across the Web. That ought to keep you busy. Happy hunting.