Personal finance: Internet Investor - On-line successes which point the way

LEGEND HAS it that one wealthy Wall Street trader realised that it was time to get out of shares and into cash ahead of the crash of 1929 when his shoe-shine boy started offering him share tips.

Now I have never be one to weave any kind of mystique around the stockmarket. Indeed, most of those working at the cutting edge of the Square Mile are little more than exceedingly well-paid bookies' runners.

But - and it is an exceedingly large but - when the central banker of the world's largest economy, the head of the world's largest media empire, and the boss of the world's biggest software firm, Alan Greenspan, Rupert Murdoch and Bill Gates respectively, all start singing from the same hymn book, we should pay attention.

You are probably aware that what they have all been saying is that prices of Internet stocks are defying gravity but have little chance of continuing to do so.

They are, in a word, overvalued. Leaving aside all the hype, who is actually responsible for the way the share price of the likes of bookseller Amazon.com has behaved? Mostly, it is a phenomenon caused by so-called "day traders" in the US. These "day traders" are not Wall Street whiz kids - they are ordinary punters but with a difference.

You or I may invest in the stockmarket for the medium or long term. To these people, long term means a day. They may trade in and out of Internet stocks several times in a day thanks to their immediate access to the market as a result of the development of direct electronic trading through the Internet brokerages such as E-trade and Charles Schwab.

The price volatility this turnover engenders is exacerbated by the limited number of shares in issue; only just over a third of Amazon.com's shares are actually on the market.

All you need to remember is that all Internet stocks come with a serious wealth warning. Trading to take advantage of the potential capital gains in a share price always ends in tragedy. The last bubble market like this occurred in shares in Japan in the 1980s, where the stockmarket is currently around a third of the level at which it peaked. The Japanese government has now resorted to handing out free shopping coupons in a bid to boost the economy. Buying and selling your shares via the Internet is not an excuse to check your common-sense at the door on the way in.

In fact, on the way in is the best place for a reality check. If you surf the Net through a basic ISP, then why not have one of the personal finance sites such as Moneyworld as your home page? Alternatively, if your entry point is a more complex portal such as AOL, check out the personal finance content on its pages. Now, Freeserve, Dixons' new ISP, has announced plans to launch a personal finance channel.

It aims to provide personal investment information, allowing you to check the value of your shares and unit trusts and look up background information on companies in which you are considering investing.

Dixons intends to expand service in the summer to include on-line share dealing, while the Freeserve finance channel will contain investment information provided by the US group MicroCap Financial Services. Since launching in September, Freeserve has attracted a million subscribers of which, Dixons says, 827,000 are active users.

Robin can be reached at RobinAmlot@aol.com

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