Stock Market Week: Net revolution sends punters share-surfing in cyberspace

A QUIET revolution has been taking place in the City's trading floors over the past few months.

While brokers were juggling their phones and staring at multi-coloured screens, a band of intruders has infiltrated the dealing rooms and stolen their computers and keyboards.

Before you call the Square Mile police, let's make one thing clear. This daylight robbery has nothing to do with the group of anarchists who tried to disrupt the Square Mile's life on Friday.

The disappearing keyboards are just a metaphor to explain the growing popularity of share trading on the Internet. As more and more investors log on to their online accounts to buy and sell stocks, they are replacing their human broker with an invisible, and cheaper, web trader.

Instead of waiting for a individual to tap in their buy or sell order on to a computer, punters have decided to do it themselves using the friendly Internet technology.

Although the numbers of UK mouse-clicking investors is far smaller than the huge army of US share Internet addicts, the phenomenon should not be underestimated.

According to the Internet research house Fletcher, around 20,000 people have live accounts with online traders such as Charles Schwab, Barclays Stockbrokers and the young start-up ESI.

This figure is small in comparison to the estimated 15 million Brits who own stocks, but looks respectable when considering that, if you exclude those who hold privatisation and windfall stocks, only one million have a proper share portfolio. More importantly, the volume of web-based turnover is set to explode over the next few years. Fletcher reckons that online trading volumes will mushroom from the present pounds 700m a year to around pounds 19bn by 2003.

The reasons for this success are pretty obvious. First of all, web trading is appealing to small punters because it is much cheaper than traditional methods. Charles Schwab, the world leader in this field, charges its customers between pounds 15 and pounds 75 for transaction, well below the hundreds of pounds asked by old-style brokers. For July only, the US house is going for broke, waiving an estimated pounds 1m in fees to offer new and existing customers completely free trades. These low costs are encouraging investors to trade more often. Some providers reckon that online customers place 30 to 40 per cent more orders than the usual punter.

Secondly, the Internet offers stockmarket enthusiasts a range of data which used to belong exclusively to the professionals.

News services, share graphs and companies' profiles are available on most stockmarket web sites for little or no charge. The information superhighway gives Charles Schwab and peers an edge over phone-based execution-only brokers. Neither can offer any advice on investors' share dealings but at least the Net investors have a few facts to base their judgements on.

Despite these undoubted benefits, it is difficult not to feel that Internet trading is a leap into the unknown. Take the States, where online dealing has developed into an all-too-American obsession. Around a third of dealings by individuals are now online and stock picking has overtaken pornography and sport as the most popular web occupation.

What makes the US experience really scary is the ballooning number of "day-traders" - people who aim to make an instant profit by getting in and out of shares within 24 hours. Critics argue that this band of uninitiated gamblers - which bizarrely includes stars such as Barbra Streisand - increases market volatility and distorts prices. More worryingly, day-traders could precipitate a market crash as their inexperience will prompt them to bail out en masse at the first sign of a downturn.

This apocalyptic view may have some credibility in the States but it is almost laughable in the UK. The key difference between the two systems is that US day-traders can borrow on margin, while their British counterparts cannot. Margin-lending is a high-risk strategy which enables the punter to borrow money from the broker by putting down a small deposit. This process is all well and good if the shares bought with borrowed money go up as the punter can use the proceeds to pay back the broker and take on more debt. However, when the strategy fails and share prices plummet, investors are forced to flood the market with cheap shares in order to sell as fast as they can and repay their debts.

These highly leveraged gambles, which have been responsible for many a market crash, are not available to UK web punters. Here, Internet investors have an in-built incentive to be cautious because they are playing with their own money. As a result, day-trading is virtually non-existent in the UK and will probably never catch on as long as margin lending is outlawed.

The boring-but-safer nature of the UK Internet trading is reflected in the type of shares bought. While US day-traders pile into little-known high-technology companies in the hope of making a quick buck, their British peers buy blue chips. Last week, the most popular purchases by Charles Schwab customers were Tesco, British Telecom, Boots and BG - arguably some of the safest choices on the list.

As long as Internet trading remains tightly controlled, there is little risk that it will degenerate into an American-style free-for-all, and it should be seen as a welcome addition to the options available to the retail investor.

Both Internet and traditional traders will have remarkably little to get their teeth into this week. The results schedule is rather bare with no blue chip expected to report.

The much-fancied Jarvis will have to use tomorrow's finals to inject some life into its share price. The stock hit a 12-month low of 437.5p in April after the rail maintenance group warned that the cost of an industrial dispute and some contracts delays by Railtrack would hit profits. The warning prompted brokers to slash forecasts to around pounds 55m from over pounds 60m previously. Jarvis numbers will still be ahead of last year's pounds 36.7m and further progress is expected in 2000. Analysts want to know whether Jarvis has got the earnings growth to extend the astonishing run which propelled its shares from 4.75p in 1995 to a peak of 787.5p.

Carpetright, also on the block tomorrow, should throw some light on the state of the sector. Its troubled rival Allied Carpets disappointed experts with another profit warning last week and the market is keen to hear whether Carpetright has experienced the same trading difficulties. Final results should show profits of around pounds 25m, down from pounds 29.1m last year.

The pounds 570m flotation of magazine group Future Network will provide some excitement on Friday. The offering of a 30 per cent stake at 385p will make the publisher of Total Football and the Official Playstation magazine a candidate to enter the midcap at the first opportunity.

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