Outlook: Dot.com gold rush

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IF MORE evidence were required of the gold rush mentality among private investors, yesterday's admission from Barclays Stockbrokers provided it. Barclays has been forced to suspend new registrations for its telephone share dealing service because it cannot cope with demand. New hopefuls desperate to join the share bonanza will have to sign up instead for the internet service, whose capacity has been boosted, or wait until after the market closes at 4.30pm if they want to join the telephone service queue.

The scale of equity fever among the general public is taking everyone by surprise. Barclays says its share dealing volumes have doubled in a month. The service has been registering 800 new traders a day, compared with 250-300 in November. The tale is similar at Charles Schwab, the US-owned share dealing service. It handled 12,500 trades yesterday, a new record. Its internet dealing service is adding 800 new clients a week and existing users are trading more heavily. Multiple this out to the plethora of other "new" online stock brokers, and we are looking at some very big numbers indeed.

What has so caught the public's imagination? Hi-tech stocks, silly, plus telecom favourites such as BT. These are the equities that have been driving the market to new peaks. With a computer mouse in one hand, and Channel 4's Show Me the Money latest hot tip in the other, the new model army of armchair traders is piling in.

The most popular punts tend to be quite high risk. According to Charles Schwab, the Top 10 most commonly bought and sold shares of the last month includes Geo Interactive Media, Rage Software, Imagination Technologies and the computer games retailer Electronic Boutiques. Extremely highly valued internet plays also figure highly. There is also a good deal of naive bottom fishing going on.

Barclays says that despite the hi-tech boom, its most popular stock is Marks & Spencer, which remains close to a seven year low despite bargain hunting the whole way down. M & S seems to have been rather more successful in recent years in impoverishing small investors than in clothing them. Even so, the Government and stock exchange must be pleased enough with their joint campaign for wider share ownership. But it would be a terrible shame if this army of wide-eyed, first-time investors were to get their fingers burned by the dot.com gold rush.