Money: Casual investors can make it easier to take their fair share

There are lots of portfolio management packages - Kay Ewbank and Janet Swift look at the choices
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PORTFOLIO MANAGERS provide three main useful facilities for sophisticated, hands-on equity investors who want to trade from home. First, they offer a way to track the movement of shares, handle multiple portfolios, and group shares, by market sector, for example. Second, they demonstrate the financial implications of the data, such as projected income from dividends and capital gains tax liability.

Finally, they enable analysis of the yield and P/E ratios of securities in a portfolio, track shares with a view to purchase and produce see charts to show performance relative to the market index.

When comparing competing products, consider the number of portfolios each can manage, whether they offer options such as multiple-currency portfolios and whether they can handle unit trusts, PEPs, and gilts.

Having retrieved your prices, and background information such as the market indexes and financial news, the next step is to make use of that data. Some investors choose to use their spreadsheet, or a general personal finance package such as Quicken or Microsoft Money, but on the whole you will get more facilities if you choose a portfolio management package.

Some of these are tied to the data "feeds". For example, InfoTrade has its own portfolio manager, as do TenFore and MarketEye. Alternatively, a wide range of portfolio management packages will use data that has been retrieved electronically or typed in manually. The main thing to check is that your potential package supports the data source you want to use.

If you have a few shares, and are only a casual investor, then you might find the facilities offered by the personal finance manager Quicken 98 sufficient for your needs. As an adjunct to its main role of tracking personal bank, savings and loan accounts, it can keep track of one or more portfolios, treating them as an investment account. You can look up security ticker symbols on the Quicken Web site, or enter SEAQ or MicroPal codes.

The prices used by Quicken are S&P Comstock 20-minute delayed, and you are limited to working with UK securities. You can watch shares that interest you, view price histories, and performance charts. Microsoft Money 98 works in a similar way but you already need to know the ticker symbol to obtain prices from the Microsoft Investor Website. Alternatively you can maintain an online portfolio on the Investor Website, tying your online portfolio with your local portfolio.

Retrieving online prices into Money is a bit tricky - for example, even though Microsoft's Investor Website confirmed the ticker symbol for SmithKline Beecham as SBH, Money reported an unknown ticker symbol of SBH when we attempted an updated price. If you already have Microsoft Money for general personal finance, it's worth looking at its portfolio management facilities, but many investors will need something more specialised.

Fairshares is one of the more sophisticated packages, and is organised in modules, so you pay for what you get. The basic level lets you manage several portfolios, draw data from Prestel online, view some predefined charts, group your shares, set stop-loss levels, and calculate your capital gains liability (including indexation).

The basic charts and reports show you the moving average, the volume traded, Relative Strength Index (RSI), and stop-loss levels. If you want to create your own reports and graphs, analyse your data more fully, or use data from MarketEye or Teletext, then you need to buy add-on modules.

Updata is another modular package, with options for portfolio management, analytics, and viewing prices, all accessed from Updata Data Director, which also takes care of inputting prices. You can use Prestel as the data source, showing the information in the trader module.

It can deal with multiple portfolios, and group portfolios can be made up from securities owned by more than one person. You can set stop-loss levels, manage capital gains liability, and view basic information. More sophisticated analysis is carried out in the Analytics module, where you can view moving averages, market trends, RSI and other short term indicators, and put together your own charts and reports.

StockMarket Investor 2, by contrast, includes all its facilities in a single application. You can draw data from Prestel or Teletext, manage multiple portfolios, and create your own reports. StockMarket Investor can handle more than one currency, translating back to your base currency for a summary report.

Portfolios can group shares by sector, and you can set stop-loss alarms. Reports and charts let you see your capital gains liability including indexation, and you can view activity by date and sector. Pre-defined charts include prices charted against oscillators, averages, and market index.

The Analyst is a very flexible package in terms of inputting price data. You can use a Teletext receiver, get end-of-day prices from Prestel, or have Analyst's creators send you a weekly or monthly disk containing the prices. The company also provides you with historical data sets containing all the prices for at least the two past years, and up to 12 in some instances. It can manage multiple portfolios, set stop-loss alarms, and carry out extensive charting and analysis.

If you are an amateur investor with a PC, any of these packages is going to provide you with facilities that will help you take your portfolio seriously - and perhaps make serious money.

Microsoft Money '98, Microsoft, 0345 002000; Quicken '98, Intuit, 0800 585058; Fairshares, Fairshares Software Ltd, 01703 660111; Updata Trader, 0181-874 4747; StockMarket Investor 2, Meridian Software 0181-309 5960; The Analyst , WinStock Software, 01962 715557.