Personal Finance: Internet Investor

IT APPEARS that the Internet is making real inroads into the way we make our financial decisions. A survey conducted on behalf of Fidelity Investments, the UK arm of the US investment giant, shows that a new generation of younger investors is using the Internet as one of its main sources of information when making an investment decision.

Over a third (35 per cent) of investors under the age of 35 said they used the Internet to help make their last investment decision, compared to 17 per cent of investors between 35 and 55 and only 10 per cent of the over-55s. The telephone-based survey was carried out among Fidelity clients and those people who had expressed an interest in the company's products.

Fidelity offers online dealing in unit trusts and Oeics and has systems already in place to allow customers to open new ISAs on-line, 24 hours a day. Given this strong electronic presence, the survey may perhaps be overstating the impact of the Net but, certainly in the US, most direct investors now turn to the Web as part of their decision-making process.

Zach Leonard, Fidelity's director of electronic channel development, comments: "This is not yet the case in the UK, where direct unit trust and share investing via the Internet is still relatively limited. However, we believe that in the UK the Internet is already starting to change the way that people invest, due to the high quality of information that is now available via the Web. Over the next year we expect that Internet use will have doubled in both the UK and in continental Europe."

Fidelity is not the only company expecting big things from the Internet. Richard Branson's Virgin has joined the stampede to make the Internet free at point of access. This week Virgin unveiled plans to invest pounds 50 million to boost its online services. Virgin believes that, within five years, 96 per cent of British consumers will have access to the Internet, whether it be through a personal computer, a set-top box or a mobile phone.

Virgin Net will initially move all its existing members over to the free package and then ramp up its operations to expand the offer to the general public in April. It was launched in November 1996, attracting more than 150,000 paying customers.

Thousands of people are now coming to the Internet for the first time, thanks to cheaper personal computers and free connection. You may well be among their number and wondering where to start. An abiding difficulty with what is available on the Web is finding the best sites and "sorting the wheat from the chaff". The truth may be out there, but there is also an awful lot of rubbish as well.

There is no substitute for doing your own research and using your own judgement. Bulletin boards, mailing lists and tipsheets may offer ideas, but it is wise to remember that they can also be used by people who wanting to "ramp" a share for their own profit.

If you want to find out more about a particular company, most of the larger UK firms now have their own websites.

One web page that offers a manageable set of links for the individual investor is UKinvestor. It has been set up with the backing of bookshop Amazon.com.

As well as offering suggested reading, which, surprise, surprise, you can order from Amazon.com, it does have links to the most useful UK personal finance sites. For the more adventurous investor, there is also a link to a sister website offering links for investors in the US markets.

Fidelity Investments:

www.fidelity.co.uk

Virgin Net: www.virgin.net

UKinvestor: ukinvestor.cjb.net

Robin can be reached at

RobinAmlot@aol.com

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