at the beginning of this month, Charles Schwab Europe officially launched its US dealing accounts for UK investors. In the past, investors here looking for exposure to or investment in the US markets were limited to an investment fund managed by a City fund manager. There are 77 offshore funds, 112 unit trusts and eight investment trusts focusing on investments in North America. Details of these are available on a variety of websites. Among those which provide comparative performance statistics is Moneyworld's Funds section.

The alternative is direct investment. A relatively small number, just over 30, of leading US companies are actually listed on the London Stock Exchange and you can invest in these via any stockbroker, paying only the normal fees that you would incur buying any shares in companies listed on the London market. However, if you want to invest directly on Wall Street or in a US company that does not have a London listing then life gets much more complicated and expensive! Schwab's new online offering requires you to have $10,000 (pounds 6,500) in your investment account.

An alternative is available from InvestIN Securities. InvestIN's online service requires you to use the firm's proprietary windows-based software, RT2 Trader. It tracks your orders in real time and, once you hold a position, subsequent market movements that affect it are displayed instantly. Although InvestIN's trading commission at $20 per deal is a lot cheaper than Schwab's $29.95, you will also be required to find $300 per month to pay for the software. However, should you make between 51 and 75 trades a month you will receive a $100 discount on the software charge, and if you are dealing more than 76 times a month the software fee is waived completely. This is not a service for the novice.

No UK brokerage allows you to trade live online or via e-mail order on the US market. For example Barclays Stockbrokers, which has one of the most advanced UK online trading systems, will not deal online in US shares. You may deal in them via the telephone but there is a pounds 45 minimum charge per deal plus a 1.75 per cent commission up to the first pounds 5,000.

When you contrast the charges UK brokers make for dealing in US shares with those offered online by US brokerages, a yawning chasm is apparent. But if you deal via a UK-based brokerage you have the full protection offered to individual investors under the auspices of the Financial Services Authority. Dealing with a brokerage in the US changes the regulatory framework. There, they are answerable to the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Although there are more than a 100 brokerages operating online in the US, several of them will not take you on as a client. For example among the larger US private client brokers, Donaldson Lufkin Jenrette's says it will not service accounts for foreign investors. Other brokerages I contacted claimed quite wrongly that UK citizens are not allowed to invest in securities abroad without a facility existing within the UK. This is not the case, although the firms in question may use it as an excuse to turn away UK investors. The Financial Services Authority is not aware of any legal restraint on US brokerages accepting UK clientele though the regulatory regime is obviously different.

Charles Schwab US account: www. Europe/Dollar

Moneyworld's Funds:

InvestIN Securities:

Robin can be reached at