Focus: `Staid' Britons share the online profits

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The Independent Online
TWO AND a half years ago 55-year-old Ken Davey didn't know how to use a computer. But give a man and a terminal and an Internet connection and, increasingly, the result is not a seeker of adult entertainment, but an Internet share trader.

Now Mr Davey, who lives in Buxton in the Peak District, is spending his retirement as a full time share trader. Since February he's raised the value of his portfolio from pounds 209,000 to pounds 258,000 and describes himself as "very pleased with his return".

Mr Davey is a serious trader, doing 80 per cent of his deals over the Internet. He is in front of his PC from 8.15am to 5.30pm during the week, watching price data tick by in realtime, using a news and price data information feed into his computer that costs him pounds 1,500 a year.

As he spoke, he was weighing up whether to sell small oil explorer Emerald Energy, whose price had risen from 4p to 6p, on rumour of a Colombian oil strike, but decided to hold on for the company's results - and possible confirmation of the rumour. "This could get much bigger," he said.

So is Ken Davey in the vanguard of a revolution in which the British take on the share-dealing habits of exuberant, stock price-addled Americans?

Around 20,000 people in the UK already conduct Internet share dealing, according to the research firm Fletcher Research. Julian Costley, the British chief executive of the on-line brokerage E*Trade UK, due to launch shortly, believes there will be considerable growth. "Our forecast is that there will be 150,000 online accounts in the UK by the end of next March," he said. "In 2002 we believe that will more than double to around 360,000."

The impending growth is confirmed by market leader Charles Schwab, which is claiming there are 15,000 on-line dealers in the UK, joining at a rate of between 500 and 1,000 a week.

Competition between E*Trade and Schwab for new online customers is likely to stimulate the market. E*Trade is planning a major consumer advertising campaign to start the program. Schwab is ready with its own special offer of commission-free online trading for the whole of July. From this month, Schwab has also started a new sharedealing service which makes it possible for British clients to trade online in US stocks, although this obviously brings in currency conversion costs and the extra risk of exchange rate changes.

In the US, companies are already concerned at how much time employees spend playing the stockmarket during worktime.

Research by Infosecurity, the computer security trade show, found office workers in the UK spend an average of 30 minutes a day entertaining themselves on-line - perhaps refining their portfolios or shopping online - rather than actually working for a living.

UK employers are waking up to the problem. Earlier this month a woman lost her unfair dismissal fight after being fired for booking, after 150 web searches, a holiday on the Internet at work, posing the question of how long will it be before the first surreptitious British worktime trader goes the same way.

Would-be enthusiasts can now find a shelf-full of American books for private online traders. These include the Electronic Day Trader's Secrets, a 1999 compendium of wisdom from unheard-of leading day traders, which tells us individual investors can participate in the market on a level playing field. Authors Marc Friedfertig and George West inform us that "the uproar you can hear is the sound of Wall Street being transformed into Main Street". They close their tome with an insider's check list of tips beginning with gems such as "limit your risk".

Of course, online traders represent a tiny fraction of the estimated 12 million British shareholders. But there are significant factors which suggest Internet dealers will punch above their weight. Internet traders are more active. Based on its American experience, E*Trade believes the average online investor will trade 80 to 100 times a year, against three or four times a year for a normal private shareholder.

Barclays Stockbrokers, which launched its online sharedealing service just four months ago, already says that, by volume, 5 per cent of the 6,000 deals a day executed by its 250,000 customer accounts are done online.

Online traders also come from a far more diverse range of backgrounds than just whizz kids turned geeks (or vice versa) - as Ken Davey shows. E*Trade's Mr Costley divides his expected customers into three types: the "young bulls", in their early 30s, hi-tech-loving, brand-conscious people; "life-planners", in their forties or fifties who are investing for a specific purpose or simply to generate income; and the "sharespotters", who invest simply for the fun of it.

David Heydorn - a life-planner - is certainly not what you'd expect from an Internet trader. With a sea view from his village home in Old Bosham near Chichester, the retired 58-year-old invests his pounds 27,000 portfolio partly because it "keeps my grey matter occupied. It isn't obsessive, it's just good to do. It keeps you in touch with the world".

Mr Heydorn sometimes goes a week or more without dealing, usually holds shares for a few weeks, and keeps an eye on share prices using his Teletext machine on TV two or three times a day. On average he makes around one deal a day using Barclays Sharedeal system. In his first six months, he made pounds 6,000. Mr Heydorn's tips are relatively simple: invest no more than a pounds 1,000 at a time, sell after the price rises by 10 per cent - and, for analyst research, read the Sunday papers.

But Old Bosham is a far cry from cola-swilling day-trading in New York. Britain perhaps still does not share the same get-rich-now culture of America, or, for that matter, the same lax private trading regime which in the US can encourage punters to trade on margin, with money they do not have. Tom Sheridan, managing director of Barclays Stockbrokers, is particularly sceptical of anything other than a "very gradual" shift to Internet trading. "There's no evidence Internet trading is going to take off over here," and chooses to characterise his firm's 5 per cent volume of Internet dealing as "not very large" rather than a fast start.

And there is little enthusiasm from online stockbrokers to encourage aggressive day-trading, where a trader holds stocks for a matter of hours and his or her entire market position is liquidated at the end of every day. Mr Sheridan says: "We have designed our system to discourage that." Barclays Sharedeal operates a certificated system and the share certificates cannot be posted fast enough to keep up with true day traders.

Neither is the market leader, Charles Schwab, keen to encourage day- trading, believing there are only five full-time traders on its books out of its 15,000 UK total.

One key fact to influence the development of UK online trading and emergence of dedicated day-traders, is the limited number of individuals with sufficient money and confidence to enter the stock market.

Ken Davey and David Heydorn have proceeds built up principally from the sale of businesses they owned, a relatively unusual position. They also acknowledge they have to be prepared to lose their entire portfolio and support themselves with other savings. Mr Davey adds: "The typical Brit is far too staid; they are just not risk-takers enough."