Diary Of A Private Investor: Brokers must mend their ways to survive

The mystique has gone and information is now available to everyone
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Some of my best friends are stockbrokers. So, using the best-friend principle that puts the onus on me to tell them about their halitosis or smudged lipstick, let me pass on some advice that will help them to avoid another potentially embarrassing problem. They should pause in the race to provide the fastest, cheapest, slickest dealing service and find out what the private investor really wants.

Let's turn the clock back a decade or two, when buying and selling shares was a very different game. Almost all transactions were done on the telephone or by letter but rarely were decisions made before lengthy chats with your stockbroker. He - or occasionally she - was an avuncular and wise figure spoken of in the same breath as a barrister or consultant surgeon. The broker's counsel was invariably heeded and he was rewarded with a heady commission (anything between one and two per cent) on the transaction.

One had an image of the broker as a Dickensian character behind a huge desk surrounded by learned works of reference, ticker tape chattering in the corner and access to that miracle of miracles, real-time prices direct from the London Stock Exchange.

After the transaction came the flurry of paperwork. Contract notes, transfer certificates, and eventually the much-prized share certificate. The investor had a comfortable 21 days or even longer to pay the bill but conversely when you sold a share it took three weeks to get your money.

Investing then was a gentile pastime pursued by the rich guided by their stockbroker sages. The phrase "my stockbroker" enjoyed the same prestige as "my personal trainer" does today.

What a very different climate the private investor finds himself in now. The mystique surrounding stockbroking has almost completely disappeared. Execution-only is the buzz phrase and commission charges have tumbled so fast that rumour has it they will soon be non-existent.

Information, that essential nutrient for an investor's survival, is available to everyone and usually it is free. The Internet, e-mail, faxes, mobile phones and pagers all help us to be well informed of up-to-date news. We have software programs to manage our portfolios and analyse our potential investments. We can keep in touch with the markets because real-time pricing is freely available.

We can make instant decisions without the help of a stockbroker. We don't have to mess about sending forms and certificates through the post. It can all be done remotely and cheaply. The brokers, realising that they must change or die, are putting emphasis on faster, cheaper and slicker services.

So is there a downside to these new-look stockbroking services? Yes, in fact there are several downsides, and investors and stockbrokers should be aware of them. Here are just a few:

Real-time pricing can encourage knee-jerk reaction. Watching prices change on the screen can induce panic buy or sell decisions.

Sorting the information wheat from the chaff is becoming extremely difficult. It seems impossible to regulate who puts what on the Internet and the investor chat sites are the perfect place to ramp shares.

Almost all the execution-only broking services are completely impersonal. You seem never to speak to the same voice twice, in fact most of the time you are lucky to speak to a live voice at all.

Private investors tend to fall in love with the shares they research. A reasoned and dispassionate expert opinion before a final buy decision is made would be invaluable.

All these problems can and should be tackled by the brokers if they want to provide a meaningful and comprehensive service to their customers.

But I have saved my biggest grouse until last and it is one the industry generally seems to be ignoring. Many of the largest stockbrokers, particularly those that are owned by Americans and want us to trade via the Internet, insist we use their nominee accounts to hold our shares. I have no objection to that, it cuts out paperwork. However, it also divorces the investor from the company whose shares he has bought.

I have used an execution-only broker to manage my active portfolio (as opposed to my PEPs, ISAs, pension and so on) for four years now. At a conservative estimate we are talking about a total of more than 50 shares. In all that time, and despite repeated requests to the broker, I have never received a copy of an annual report or any other communication direct from the companies in which I am a shareholder.

From talking to other investors I know I am not just unlucky. But I am a patient fellow, I will send a copy of this article to the broker and give him one more chance. If nothing happens I will take my business elsewhere.

PS: When is the market going to crash? Not yet, Alvin Hall tells me. He's the American guru who's becoming a television star over here with a new BBC series on money and how to manage it. Alvin reckons markets around the world will be fired by Millennium fever and will make sure we go into the new year on a high.

PPS: Thrilled to see one of my investments, The Money Channel, bounced a third this week on news that it had signed a sales and marketing agreement with Granada. One national newspaper referred to the company as "Adam Faith's Money Channel" but my researches have not revealed an A. Faith among the shareholders. There is however a Mr. T. Nelhams-Wright who owns 13.7 per cent. Are A. Faith and T. Nelhams-Wright one and the same? I think we should be told.

Terry Bond is a private investor with a substantial portfolio involved principally in British and American equities. He is also a director of ProShare (UK) Ltd., the organisation which looks after the interests of the investor in the corridors of power. He is responsible for guiding the development of the investment club movement.

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