Last week saw me doing nothing more technical than hauling ropes on a boat, but it followed a week of indoctrination on matters Internet - in particular, how the World Wide Web is used in the US.
My conclusion after a week of maritime musings was that change will take place in the City far faster than anybody believes. The Internet will revolutionise the buying of financial products - not just stocks and shares, but almost anything that counts as an investment. It will not remove the need for advice, but it will heighten transparency, create easier access to markets and drive down both costs and charges.
Let me provide an example. Our sister company, GNI, has developed a system called GOLD - "Gni On-Line Dealing" - that will connect anyone wishing to trade futures with the market via the Net. Not just e-mailing orders - you access prices real time and deal direct through your computer. And you can do it from just about anywhere for the cost of a local phone call.
Here is the rub, though. Because there is no human intervention, these trades can be conducted at commissions just one-fifth of those that applied when the telephone intervened. This will come, in time, for stocks and shares, too, and will have just as dramatic an effect on charges.
Naturally, I have been looking at this in a parochial sense, but the reality is that the Net is transforming trade everywhere, empowering the consumer, keeping the lid on inflation and bringing costs down dramatically. It is one reason why the US economy is so buoyant.
How do we benefit from this revolution? Net stocks are comparatively rare here, but they are arriving and, if the American experience is anything to go by, will deliver considerable volatility and not a few capital losses to those who try to catch the tail of this particular tiger. There are funds you can choose, such as the Framlington NetNet Fund. But even buying a spread of net stocks may be insufficient protection against the vagaries of this market, where companies worth many billions of dollars have yet to deliver a dividend - or even profits.
If you want to benefit from the web - and through the medium of established companies with real earnings and dividends - look no further than telecom stocks. Not only do these businesses have the greatest vested interest in making the Net work, they have built enormous skill-sets to exploit the opportunities now present and are already benefiting hugely. Witness the massive uplift in local telephone traffic that BT reported recently - all down to increased Internet usage. These sound like a must for everyone's portfolio.
Brian Tora is chairman of Greig Middleton Investment Strategy CommitteeReuse content