Seven million Americans, from store owners to Hollywood stars such Barbra Streisand, now dabble in stocks, accounting for over one-seventh of stock transactions in the US. The profits some have netted as US markets have soared have even prompted some to quit their day jobs. Favourite punts include Internet firms - which tend to have high levels of debt, making their shares vulnerable to moves in US interest rates.
The recent phenomenon of day trading - where private investors try to make profits from buying and selling a stock over their PCs within a matter hours - has taken off as the cheap and fast trading has become available over the Internet. Such traders will often trade on margin - putting up only a small percentage of the value of their purchases with on-line brokers and selling the shares for profit before the rest of the money is due - leaving them facing huge losses if their share gamble goes wrong.