Fire up your Web browser and check for a stock quote at your favorite "portal" site and you will likely see a screen decorated with ads for some of the many discount brokers urging you to trade with them online. Their commissions are low (as little as $7 a trade), access is easy, and trades are executed quickly. What's not to like?
Alas, none of the discount online brokers offers the depth and quality of research available from full-service brokers, many of whom offer online trading, but at much higher commissions. So how can an individual investor hope to play on a level with the big boys without the heavy commissions?
While you can't match everything the big brokers offer, a resourceful Web investor on a budget can do pretty well. Here's where to look:
For the most basic stuff quotes, a quick profile of a company and its current financial information your Internet portal site will probably do the job. If not, try www.excite.com, or www.yahoo.com. Their financial areas offer quotes, with other basic data such as 52-week price ranges, price/earnings ratios and dividend information.
They also offer charting, which allows you to see the stock's price performance during periods ranging from the current day to the previous five years. There are current news stories, most of them gleaned from the P.R. and financial newswires. You can also find out how many brokers are rating a particular stock as a "buy," "hold," or "neutral." Don't expect to see a "sell" rating. Brokers almost never recommend a stock be sold, at least not in public.
Similar information is also offered by such sites as www.marketguide.com and www.marketwatch.com. So does the enormously popular "Motley Fool" Web site (www.fool.com) sponsored by the brothers Tom and David Gardner. This site is notable for two other features: a lot of discussion about various investment approaches, such as the famous "Dow Ten" strategy, and a large number of message forums where investors swap information and opinions about stocks.
There's not a message base for every stock but there are a lot of them, and while there is much chaff in the messages, they are worth scanning because they tend to have the latest scuttlebutt on a company. And, as Warren Buffett will tell you, company scuttlebutt is worth knowing. A similarly large base of messages can be found at www.yahoo.com.
What is lacking in this information is a company's performance over a five- or 10-year period. Nor is there much about a company's "story," i.e. what its strengths, weaknesses and challenges are and how management is trying to deal with them.
This is the kind of information a full-service broker can provide, but even many of them rely on the monthly reports from Value Line, which you can find at your local library, and to which you can subscribe for 10 weeks for $55 ($600 for a year's subscription). Value Line covers 1,700 companies and its single-page reports, updated regularly, are famous for the amount of information crammed into them.
You get a large set of data and statistics on a company's performance going back as far as 15 years. You get a brief profile of the company and a remarkably succinct but complete analysis of its business and its "story." There is a recommendation on the stock as both a long-term and a short-term investment. You can get Value Line in print or on a CD-ROM, both of which are updated regularly.
Value Line also has a Web site (www.valueline.com) where subscribers can download its updated company reports. Non-subscribers should check in too, because there are monthly recommended stocks together with Value Line's analysis. Two other similarly named but separate sites to check for recommended stocks: www.onlineinvestor.com and www.theonlineinvestor.com.
And once you've gotten an idea for a stock to invest in, how do you analyze it? At Motley Fool, they recommend using something called the PEG ratio, which stands for price to earnings to growth. They tell you how to compute for a particular stock, but you have to gather the data yourself. At a nifty site called www.stockselector.com, they do the work for you.
You enter the ticker symbol for the stock and it computes not only the PEG ratio, but also a price based on it. It also computes several other prices based on various other criteria. None of them is a foolproof indicator, but they are all handy tools. Finally, check the "Fair Value Worksheet" at www.money.com, an online calculator Money developed with help from Morgan Stanley, the broker. You'll need the full address, which is: www.pathfinder.com/money/plus/features/value/blank.oft.
T.R. Reid is London bureau chief of the Washington Post. Brit Hume is managing editor of Fox News in Washington. You can reach them in care of the Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St., Washington D.C. 20071-9200, or you can e-mail T.R. Reid at email@example.com and Brit Hume at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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