Old Line Vs. Online: Investors Win

The spread of Internet trading and rise of index funds has traditional brokers and money managers on the spot. Caught between the lower prices available on the Net and index funds' better performance, old-line Wall Street must retool. Thanks to technology, people have all kinds of new ways to invest their money. The wing-tip crowd has a bright future only if it can find a way to handhold baby boomers into their retirement and gain the trust of twentysomethings.

The task is formidable. Technology now allows online brokers to do trades at a fraction of the cost of old-line firms. Plus they supply enormous amounts of investment information. Wall Street firms can offer their own sophisticated views on the market, but their analysts increasingly suffer from a credibility problem. Many have morphed into cheerleaders and investment-banking rainmakers.

The performance gap is widening as well. Over the past decade, 84% of all large-cap managers trailed the benchmark Standard & Poor's 500-stock index. And it's not only equities. Last year the Vanguard Total Bond Market Index Fund beat 87% of all actively managed bond funds.

In the end, the battle between online and old-line will be fought on cost and performance. The outcome is far from inevitable. After all, the giant Fidelity Magellan Fund managed to beat the S&P-500 index's stunning 28.6% performance last year. But either way, the investor will be the big winner.

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