Personal Finance: The Jonathan Davis Column - Net prophets await profits

Cyberspace is a world of rapidly changing fortunes and shifting alliances where few make money

The markets may have fallen into a state of high autumnal anxiety, but at least one upward trend in the UK investment scene shows, as yet, no sign of letting up. This is the rapid and exciting growth of users of the Internet as an investment medium.

The hype says that cyberspace will soon become a leading channel in the distribution of financial information and products. I believe that it is now beginning to happen, and a lot of the hype has proved to be justified.

Nobody has ever doubted the potential of the Internet to make an impact in the sphere of investments. It is relatively easy to see how it has the capacity to create an effective marketplace, which links investors and providers of financial services in a uniquely convenient way.

But with its distinctive counter-cultural flavour, and the inevitably unstructured nature of its development, it seemed natural to express caution about how quickly it would be embraced by the ranks of mainstream investors and financial service companies. Which other medium would a company such as Scottish Widows willingly share space with Amsterdam sex shows and Matt Drudge, the man who regularly recycles the latest scabrous rumours on the peccadilloes of Washington politicians?

However, now that the Internet has started to become a respectable plaything of the middle class, all that is changing fast. For investors, in particular, the Internet opens up such a wealth of valuable possibilities that its growth was always assured once word of its capabilities began to spread. It is no surprise that, in the US, the sophistication and breadth of Internet usage in this field is still way ahead of ours. But the gap is now starting to narrow here too.

This week, I talked to the man who now runs what is currently the largest independent UK investment site on the Internet. The site is called Interactive Investor (http://www.iii.com). The aim of the site is to bring together a wide range of information and transaction tools across the spectrum of the financial markets - everything from car and life insurance to pensions and the stock market.

Most of the leading Internet service providers - the AOLs and Compuserves of this world - are attempting to do the same thing with their dedicated "gateway" sites, as are big information companies such as the Financial Times, Reuters and Bloomberg. Just to confuse things, many of these companies also are hedging their bets by supplying packaged products to other providers.

All the big unit-trust firms and banks have their own sites and are looking for the best way to access the growing band of Internet consumers.

It is a complex and fluid market, but Interactive Investor is proving one of the most durable and successful competitors. The man who runs it is an engaging Englishman with an MBA from Harvard Business School called Alex Heath. He took on the job last year, with the task of turning what was a powerful concept - first started in 1995 by a Canadian entrepreneur - into a successful commercial business.

As the chart shows, the growth in popularity of the site has accelerated rapidly since its launch in 1995. Since the start of last year, in fact, the number of registered users has grown from about 10,000 to just less than 96,000.

The number of "hits" - a measure of how intensively used the site has been - has grown from a million a month, a year ago, to more than 15 million a month today. Given that this is only one site, albeit one of the most popular, these are remarkable figures.

They underline how enthusiastically - after the slow start - that both users and financial companies are now embracing the new medium. What Interactive Investor and others are tapping into now is something more than just business dabbling in a faddy new field. Intriguingly, the Internet is starting to prove its real worth not just as a channel of communication and information, but increasingly as a medium for sales. As Alex Heath points out, whereas initially investors used the Internet to research investment decisions, more and more are now moving on to carry out transactions as well.

In addition, about a third of the site's 100,000 registered users, according to Heath, actively monitor the value of their holdings, using Interactive Investor's portfolio management service. This is a powerful tool which automatically updates the values of each share you own from its market data feeds. To keep this in perspective, some of these portfolios appear to consist of shadow transactions, rather than real life buy and sell decisions, but the trend is clear enough.

Given that this can be done for no more than the cost of a subscription to an Internet service provider, and the related local-rate phone calls, the success of sites such as Interactive Investor is perhaps not that surprising.

What is still remarkable is how far and how rapidly usage is growing. If current market research projections are correct, then Internet access in the UK is set to double from 10 million to 20 million households by the early part of the next century. Financial services will be one of the major beneficiaries of this growth.

It is true that the Internet is still largely a field of dreams for wannabe entrepreneurs. Cyberspace is a strange place to do business - it is a world of rapidly changing fortunes and shifting competitive alliances - and very few, if any, participants have yet made money out of it. Interactive Investor is no exception, but its business is moving forward.

Advertisers like it as a medium, not only because it has a high conversion rate - those who see an advertisement are more likely to make a transaction than in many other mediums - but also because the feedback from users is easy to log and analyse.

Interactive Investor has the advantage of being a small firm with the Internet as its only business, which is competing against larger competitors who cannot decide if the Internet is a threat or an entirely new market.

Of course, any sustained slowdown in world stock markets may slow down the rate of growth in investor interest in this new medium. As the second chart shows, shares in American companies with Internet interests have already taken a pasting since the market started to wobble badly in July. But as a regular user of Interactive Investor and many other online services, my guess is that the momentum behind the growth in current demand is largely unstoppable. Once tried, it is hard to conceive of life without it.

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