Personal Finance: Client power on the web

ACCORDING to the Equitable Life, one-in-four calls to its offices are from customers checking the value of their plans. Especially when the stockmarket is unstable, investors who want to know how much their pensions, life policies and unit trusts are worth.

Over the last few years, the Equitable, like most life assurance and pensions providers, has built up computer systems that let clients carry out most daily business by phone. Checking fund values, reviewing contributions, moving investments now takes minutes, but it still has to be done in office hours.

Last month the Equitable connected its client computer systems to its web site. Now its On-line Client Service gives plan-holders access to a wealth of detailed information at evenings and weekends.

Several life and pensions offices now put plan details on the web but this is general rather than personal information. The Equitable publishes this sort of data too: anyone can use its web site to view the bid and offer prices for its pension plan units, life policies and unit trusts, updated daily.

But the Equitable's clients can do far more than view prices. The site looks closer to an on-line bank account than an insurer's web pages. There is an on-line demo, but anyone who wants to use its client services properly has to register.

Customers' user names, passwords and PINs are sent out by post, so there is a delay between signing up and using the site. But the Equitable believes this level of security is essential. It's not possible to buy a new pension or investment but they can amend direct debits, change address details, call up contribution records and view statements showing how much their investments are worth.

Active investors can even use the site to switch between investment funds. Equitable has more than a dozen funds - from a UK index tracker to index-linked gilts to Far Eastern, North American and an ethical funds. An investor might want to move money between funds based on performance or in response to the market; or change a portfolio's balance as attitude to risk change.

Viewing statements on line and switching electronically makes the process far simpler and quicker. Not everyone will want to change funds regularly but being able to track performance is valuable in itself, especially as it lets investors see if they are on track to their pension or to pay off a mortgage.

Legal and General has also extended its internet service, Interplan so that clients can review their unit trust and PEP values. L&G launched Interplan last year to let borrowers with its flexible reserve mortgage manage their accounts, and 20 per cent have done so.

Interplan is less advanced than the Equitable Life's service, as investors cannot use it to switch investments or increase contributions. This is almost certain to come, though, and other investment houses, such as Fidelity, offer sophisticated account management through their web sites.

Of course, investment houses and life offices spend a lot of time and money responding to simple investor requests for information. Automating this on the web saves money. But giving information to investors gives them power, too.

Links: the Equitable Life: http://www.equitable.co.uk

Fidelity: http:www.fidelity.co.uk L&G: http://www.landg.com

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