This is a consequence of financial services regulation rather than any lack of technological know-how from providers. The regulators require you to sign a piece of paper in order to buy products such as unit trusts and life insurance. And clearly you can't do that electronically.
However, things are changing. Many companies, Fidelity for example, already provide application forms on their web sites that you can fill in on-screen and print off. Then all you have to do is sign on the dotted line and put the form in the post.
Moreover, the Government is keen to help investors buy over the internet. Its draft regulations for the introduction of individual savings accounts next April include a provision to allow people to invest electronically. However, Peter Parker of the Financial Services Authority, the City watchdog, says that with more complex products there will always be areas where the law requires a written signature.
Share dealing is one area of investment where it is possible to do everything over the internet, once you have set up an account. Infotrade, for example, provides links to several execution-only stockbrokers through which you can deal on-line cheaply. And some brokers - including Barclays, Charles Schwab and The Share Centre - plan to launch internet dealing services. In addition ETrade, one of America's biggest internet investment companies, has just bought ESI, a UK on-line share-dealing provider, and plans to launch an overseas on-line dealing service.
However, the internet is all about information, and an excellent place to start is the Financial Information Net Directory which provides web addresses for hundreds of financial services companies. If you are interested in direct stock market investment, a host of sites - including the ones run by ESI, Market Eye, Interactive Investor, Nasdaq and Yahoo - update share prices throughout the day on a 20-minute time-delayed basis. These sites also offer real-time share price information, though you'll have to pay a fee for this service. For company analysis, extracts from company reports and past performance statistics, try the sites run by the Financial Times, Company Reports Online and Updata Software.
There is also plenty of coverage of unit and investment trusts available on-line. Interactive Investor runs a web site that has links to around half all the providers of collective investments in the UK. The AITC and Autif, the unit and investment trust trade bodies, both have good sites too.
Other sites are strong on savings and mortgages. At the home pages of Quicken and Moneyworld, for instance, you can check out who is offering the most generous rates on any type of savings account or mortgage.
Microsoft has also entered this arena. It has just signed a deal with The Exchange, a UK company that provides electronic services to independent financial advisers.
If you are concerned about the security of an investment company, have a look at the Financial Services Authority's site. It includes a list of all the companies in the UK authorised to do investment business, plus hints on how not to be ripped off.
Contacts: AITC, ww.iii.co.uk/aitc; Autif, www.iii.co.uk/autif; Company Reports Online, www.carol.co.uk; ESI, www.esi.co.uk; Financial Information Net Directory, www.find.co.uk; Financial Services Authority, www.fsa.gov.uk; Fidelity, www.fidelity.co.uk; Financial Times, www.ft.com; Infotrade, www.infotrade.co.uk; Interactive Investor, www.iii.co.uk; Market Eye, www.market-eye.co.uk; Microsoft, www.microsoft.com; Moneyworld, www.moneyworld.co.uk; Nasdaq, www.nasdaq.com; Quicken, www.quicken.co.uk; Standard & Poor's Micropal, www.micropal.com; Updata Software, www.updata. co.uk; Yahoo, finance.yahoo.co.uk.
q David Prosser is features editor of 'Investors Chronicle'.Reuse content