Computer technology promises to bring Wall Street within reach of the masses, but can the new culture really deliver?

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The Independent Online
When the Government's privatisation programme was in full flow, life as a member of the great share-owning democracy looked easy. You applied for your maximum application, stagged the share when they went on sale and enjoyed the Caribbean holiday or whatever prize you promised yourself you would spend the handsome proceeds on.

Now that such opportunities have all but dried up, things are a little tougher. In the everyday world of deciding which stocks to buy and which to sell, and in what quantities, it is generally assumed that the private investor is at the mercy of the professionals.

But the authors of Cyber-Investing, a book about to be published in this country, claim they can help bridge this gap.

"The personal computer revolution of the past 15 years has shattered the barrier between Wall Street and Main Street," they write in the preface.

"A few short years ago, Wall Street had a lock on the kind of information needed to make a truly informed decision about trading stocks."

In other words, the amount of effort required to research stocks and the computing power needed to turn that into usable information was beyond the average individual.

This implies that things have changed. And according to David L Brown and Kassandra Bentley, what has done it is the information explosion of recent years and in particular the personal computer revolution.

"Today, whether you're in Sioux City, Iowa or San Antonio, Texas, the information superhighway leads you directly to Wall Street," they say.

The argument is that the power of the latest personal computers, not to mention the ever-increasing ingenuity of the software that runs on them, puts you into the same league as the big hitters.

With a few strokes of your keyboard, goes the theory, you will be able to obtain a company's earnings the minute they are released, retrieve analysts' reports as soon as they are available, even find price and volume information for any listed stock for any day of any year you want.

So much for the theory. As the place names should make clear, this book originated in the US, where private investors have long been much more active than their counterparts on this side of the Atlantic.

For all the expansion in share-owning, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that investment in Britain is still something of a minority sport for those who - in the famous adage - "can afford to lose what they invest". In the US, if the frantic activity observable any weekday lunchtime in train stations and other downtown locations is anything to go by, it is much more of a mass preoccupation. Accordingly, there is much greater sophistication - and hence an increased likelihood of an interest in this sort of assistance.

It is easy to see - in this age of Windows 95, the Internet, web sites and all that - the marketing appeal of a book with the word "cyber" in the title.

But anybody hoping to be transported to a virtual new world via a bulky headset and the equivalent of an amusement arcade console is going to be sorely disappointed.

The volume does come with a couple of free software discs and a few homilies about the sort of information they will help you obtain. But thereafter it is pretty much a conventional guide to stock market analysis, complete with plenty of charts and such tips as "timing is vital".

So is it going to help close this gap between the amateurs and the professionals? It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the kind of people who are likely to want to pore over their computers gleaning this sort of information are going through the motions already - albeit in a long-winded and cumbersome way. It is not obvious that those who currently base the decisions they make on press reports and comment - and therefore make them a day late - will be converted.

But all is not lost. There are those in the investment community who believe that the individual is not always worse off than the professional. Donald Butcher of the private investors group, the UK Shareholders Association, points out that, while by and large small investors are probably not very good at acting quickly and decisively, they do have one significant advantage over the bigger boys.

They can buy and sell without moving the market.

By contrast, he says if the manager of a prominent fund wants to buy or sell a stake in, for instance, ICI, he or she will be aware that the market is watching.

Moreover, he suggests that finding information is not quite as difficult as is claimed. "It's possible to get insights into companies in all sorts of ways that people do not think about," he says.

He recalls how he was curious about why an investment trust he had invested in was underperforming. He telephoned the company and was told that one big buyer had been selling heavily - and so bought more stock.

"If you pose your query in a way that will get the party on your side, it's astonishing how forthcoming people are with helpful advice," he says, adding that homework is key - which is probably where we came in.

Cyber-Investing by David L Brown and Kassandra Bentley will be published by John Wiley & Sons.

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