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A Portfolio, A Pc, A Passion


Personal Business: Investing

A PORTFOLIO, A PC, A PASSION

It's 3 a.m. and the urge to make some money suddenly strikes you. Never mind that it's too late to interrogate your broker or to bounce investment ideas off your spouse. And if you already have an inkling of which stocks to buy, you surely couldn't place the order until after the exchanges opened in the morning. Yet you want to play the market--now.

These days, investment junkies equipped with a personal computer and modem can ring up financial advice and place orders for securities around the clock. Leading on-line information services--America Online (800 827-6364), CompuServe (800 848-8199), Dow Jones News/ Retrieval (800 522-3567), GEnie (800 638-9636), and Prodigy (800 776-3449)--cater to individual investors with a gaggle of financial-information products, ranging from market data bases and stock quotes to business news wires and electronic bulletin boards.

The services let subscribers trade on-line through discount brokers. CompuServe customers, for instance, have a choice of signing on with Spear Rees, Quick & Reilly, or E*Trade Securities; America Online, Dow Jones, GEnie, and Prodigy users can go with Quick & Reilly, Fidelity, Charles Schwab, and PC Financial Network, respectively. Orders can be placed 24 hours per day; you can cancel the transaction before the market opens. Schwab customers on GEnie even get 10% off the regular commission rates.

BEST-BET STOCKS. While the scope of the data in reach of your modem is immense, getting to the information may seem a bit daunting. America Online and Prodigy are generally the easiest to get around for PC newcomers, though experienced investors may want to tap meaty data bases found elsewhere. Just keep in mind that it's going to cost you: Basic connection charges are relatively minimal, but many investment services carry weighty surcharges. InvesText on CompuServe, for example, is a data base of Wall Street analyst reports on more than 8,200 U.S. public companies and 2,300 foreign ones. A title search of up to 10 citations costs $7.50; retrieving the full text of a report costs $15. A search for five company names via the TRW Business Credit Profiles on GEnie also costs $7.50, and users must fork over $29 for each credit report they take a peek at.

Wall Street Edge, a new financial digest on Prodigy, costs an extra $19.95 a month (or $1.95 a day). The service provides daily excerpts culled from some 150 contributing financial newsletters and 900-number hot line services, including the Addison Report, Global Market Strategist, and the Vanguard Adviser. You can pore through a series of rumors under the heading "Wall St. Whispers." Mther Wall Street Edge sections highlight long-term best-bet stocks, best-bet options, low-priced stocks (generally, NASDAQ equities priced at under $5), and mutual funds.

Investors can choose stocks according to their own investment philosophy by tapping into Strategic Investor, another pricey Prodigy add-on. For $14.95 per month, you can get access to a data base covering more than 5,000 New York Stock Exchange, American Stock Exchange, and NASDAQ stocks, plus 3,400 mutual funds. A "stock analyst" feature within Strategic Investor lets you do limited screening by selecting an industry group and targeting price-earnings ratios, five-year earnings growth, dividend yields, or any combination above. With a "stock hunter" tool, you can get a list of equities compiled according to a variety of valuation models, including "wallflowers" (small-cap companies with growth potential that are overlooked by institutional investors), "Graham & Dodd" (stocks selling at less than their expected future earnings and dividends), and "One Up on Wall Street" (stocks worth considering if expected future earnings and dividends are more than twice the p-e).

LONGS AND SHORTS. No matter how you arrive at an investment, you can discuss your selections with other members by posting messages on the numerous computer bulletin boards. These boards serve as on-line clubhouses and support groups.

The discussions can range all over the map. On CompuServe recently, you could read missives on new financial software, a possible return of inflation, and whether it makes sense to short the stock of Snapple, a maker of soft drinks. A sample: "It has enough volatility to keep both us longs and shorts happy."

As with any investment source, subscribers cruising the forums for insider tips should validate the credentials of the person trumpeting the information. To be sure, there's a fair amount of self-policing on computer bulletin boards; if you think you've gotten some bum advice, by all means go public. You can also send private electronic mail to the tipster. Says John Bajkowski, editor of the newsletter Computerized Investing: "I'd be leery of any stock or mutual-fund tip you get on-line. You're never sure of the person's vested interest."

Members can also engage in "live" chat with one another and sometimes with reputed investment experts. America Online, for instance, runs live conferences on Sunday evenings with Art Bechhoefer, a registered investment adviser. On June 7, former Fidelity Magellan whiz Peter Lynch will appear on Prodigy's Money Talk bulletin board to answer electronic queries from members. Who knows? Do enough poking around on-line services, and maybe you'll have a tip for Lynch.

TABLE: DIALING FOR DATA

PRODIGY

Friendly graphics for beginners, though you'll have to put up with scrolling advertisements. Pricey add-ons such as Wall Street Edge and Strategic Investor provide stock tips, Wall Street rumors, and limited stock screening.

COMPUSERVE

One of the most extensive on-line services. You can get access Wall Street analyst reports, S&P Online earnings projections, and SEC filings, all for extra surcharges.

GENIE

Low monthly price includes the Investor's Roundtable bulletin board, but the interface is clunky. Serves as gateway to numerous expensive data bases, such as TRW Business Credit Profiles and Investment Analy$t.

AMERICA ONLINE

Friendly interface lets you easily chat with other members. Has separate forum to discuss market timing and technical analysis, and Bulls & Bears, a stock market simulation game using real market prices.

DATA: BUSINESS WEEKEdward Baig EDITED BY AMY DUNKIN


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