If the gyrations of the stock market have you riveted, you can hardly find a better place for both free information and, if you need it, solace than the Internet. On the Web, you can keep continual track of how your investments are doing, and when you need sound advice, there are some excellent sites for that as well.
For tracking stocks, an easy method is to set up a customized home page on one of the numerous Internet "portals" operated by such companies as Yahoo! (www.yahoo.com) and Excite (www.excite.com). Each allows you to track the value of stocks of your choice, whose prices appear in a table on your screen whenever you visit the page. It takes a little doing to get the page set up, and you may have to look up the symbols for your stocks, but once that's done and the symbols entered, it's automatic. The stock prices appear just 20 minutes behind the market itself.
The table on Excite is especially useful since it not only includes your stock's daily highs, lows and current price, it also calculates and displays the percent change and includes the 52-week high and low and, if you choose, the price-to-earnings ratio and dividend information. In short, you get in a single table more than you could find by going through your investments in a daily newspaper stock table, one stock at a time, and reading the fine print.
Excite's stock information is furnished by Charles Schwab and Co., the discount broker, which itself maintains a Web site (www.schwab.com) where you can obtain stock quotes and an array of other market information. You can also set up an online brokerage account. Several other such firms have similar Web sites, but most require you to establish an account in order to get the full range of their financial information.
At the moment, you may be more interested in some sound advice than in more market data. For years, some of the wisest counsel available has come from Warren Buffett, the CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, a one-time textile mill which Buffett transformed into the most successful investment company in America. Some investors used to buy shares of Berkshire Hathaway just to get a copy of its annual report accompanied by Buffett's "Chairman's Letter," a witty, wise and literate dissertation on the company, the market and the world of business.
Nowadays, all Buffett's annual letters dating back to 1977 are available on the company's free Web site (www.berkshirehathaway.com). It's a good thing, since, as of Sept. 1, a single share of Berkshire Hathaway common stock was selling at $60,000.
Here's a sample from the most recent Buffett letter, sent in February 1998. Buffett belittles his company's 1997 results (up 34.1 percent), saying, "In a bull market, one must avoid the error of the preening duck that quacks boastfully after a torrential rainstorm, thinking that its paddling skills have caused it to rise in the world. A right-thinking duck would instead compare its position after the downpour to that of the other ducks on the pond."
As for down markets, Buffett writes that if you expect to be a "net saver," that is, an investor who expects to do more buying than selling in the near future, a bear market is something to look forward to. "Only those who will be sellers of equities in the near future should be happy at seeing stocks rise," Buffett observes. "Prospective purchasers should much prefer sinking prices."
And if you want a primer on the market written for the individual investor, visit the popular Motley Fool Web site (www.fool.com/welcome.htm). This is a site dedicated to the proposition that "the best person to manage your money is you," and that the best way to do it is to invest in stocks. After all, note the "fools" (brothers Tom and David Gardner), the stock market has returned an average of 10.5 percent since 1925, outperforming all other known investment vehicles.
As for those vaunted experts, the mutual fund managers, the "fools" note that nearly all such funds underperform the market, as measured by the Standard & Poor's 500 index. The message is that you can do better than that, and the site's purpose is to tell you how. The site offers what it calls the "Fool's School," which explains in clear language some of the basics of investing and the meaning of many stock market terms.
Don't miss the "13 Steps to Investing Foolishly," which tells you, from scratch, how to set up a brokerage account, pick some stocks, track their performance, and beat the averages. The "fools" say it can be fun, and they make it sound that way.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org and Brit Hume at email@example.com.
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