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Hi-tech Investor: Surf the web for your final PEPs

ALTHOUGH the PEP gives way to the individual savings account (ISA) in April, business in the tax-free vehicles is thriving, writes Stephen Pritchard. PEPs taken out before 5 April can still be held after the ISA starts, and investors can continue to switch funds between PEP managers, so there is still much to play for.

The internet offers two valuable research resources: TrustNet and Interactive Investor's PEP Centre. TrustNet is not specifically geared towards PEPs; instead it covers the whole unit trust market in detail, with a wealth of supporting material on unit trusts that is well worth reading.

Interactive Investor's PEP Centre is a well organised and comprehensive place to start research. The site displays performance figures for PEPable unit trusts, taking the data from Standard and Poor's Micropal.

Browsers have access to the snapshot figures on the first page. This includes the top performing unit trusts over five and two years, and the top three geographical sectors for growth, again over five years. Interactive Investor has also compiled the most popular unit trust PEPs held by its users, and lists their performance.

More detailed information is available to registered Interactive Investor users, but registering online is straightforward. Once this is done, the PEP Centre lets visitors search for the top 10 funds, or look at the performance of individual funds in more detail. The site graphs its performance against the sector average on the FT-SE All Share index; the entire process is commendably quick. There is no facility to invest online, but web users can order literature on each fund via Interactive Investor. The site also has a direct link to PEP providers which do have an online option.

These include companies such as Fidelity, which has sophisticated PEP management functions on its website, NetPEP, which only sells its tracker- based funds over the internet, and companies such as the brokers Charles Schwab, which lets its clients manage their PEPed shares via the net.

For investors who know the PEP they want, and who want to save some money, discount brokers are the ideal way to buy a PEP; several have set up shop on the internet.

PEP providers pay a commission to "introducers", usually financial advisers, who bring in business. Discounters work by refunding almost all their commission to investors. Commission rates can be as high as 5 per cent, although the average is 3 per cent. There is little or no risk attached to dealing with a broker, as investors write their cheques to the PEP company, not the intermediary.

Discount brokers with websites include Allenbridge, IFA Online, Garrison Discount Investments and PEPDirect. None has online transactions - investments are finalised by post. Each has a slightly different approach, so it is worth visiting several sites.

Links: Allenbridge, www.allenbridge.co.uk; Charles Schwab, www.schwab- worldwide.com/europe; Fidelity, www.fidelity.co.uk; Garrison Investments, www.garrison. co.uk; IFA Online, www.investments-online.co.uk; Interactive Investor PEP Centre, www.iii.co.uk/pep; NetPEP, www.netpep.co.uk; PEPDirect, www.torquilclark-pepdirect. co.uk; TrustNet, www.trustnet.co.uk