Gary Kline has had a beating heart at his fingertips. A skilled cardiac surgeon on the faculty of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, he obviously isn't a guy afraid of responsibility. But for years, when it came to making investments, he left the decisions up to someone else. Most of his ideas came from his Salomon Smith Barney broker.
Then came the Internet.
Today, he gets most of his stock picks on the Net and places trades through an online trading firm. "I've kind of cut myself off from brokers," he said. "I just don't view them as having the same credibility." Dr. Kline is a frequent visitor to online stock-discussion sites, where he swaps information with other investors. He believes individuals who do enough research can be every bit as savvy about the market and stocks as any broker -- and going online yourself is a lot cheaper and easier. So much is just a mouse click away.
Gone are the days when investors had to call their broker at every turn for stock quotes, for investment tips, for business news. Gone, too, are the $100, $200, or $300 commissions they once paid for the simplest of stock trades. Those are sky-high by the standards of today, when you would be hard-pressed to find an online broker charging more than $30 for the same trade. Shop around, and you'll pay less than $10.
When it comes to personal investing, the Internet has changed all the rules. Sure, other businesses have been altered by the Net -- book-stores, drugstores, even telephone and cable television companies. But no other field has been transformed, so totally and so rapidly, as has personal investing. Trading securities is all about obtaining information and executing transactions. The Internet offers quicker, cheaper, and more efficient ways to do both.
It is quicker and cheaper than traditional trading because online trading allows you to get rid of the middleman -- your traditional full-service broker. It is more efficient for several reasons. Few would dispute the revolutionary nature of the Internet as a means of communication. And tapping an order into your computer often offers a clearer shot into the stock market than reading it into the phone.
All this has been quite a blow to your broker. After all, for years he has been the nexus for trading and information. That arrangement provided for him quite well. If he had you on the phone, maybe he could sell you on a trade. And if you had enough money, he'd try to get you on the phone all the time. Under this traditional, commission-based sales structure, every trade was more money in the bank -- for him.
Now, you log on to the Net. You can check out price quotes on any one of hundreds (maybe thousands) of Web sites. You can comb for investing ideas on financial news and information sites -- or on online message boards, where investors swap ideas among themselves. You can dig into company information and Wall Street research, or pick and choose mutual funds with screening tools that used to sit only on your broker's desk. And, of course, you can hop on to any one of scores of online brokerage sites to place a trade.
All of this emerged just as two other powerful forces were being felt on Wall Street. Since the mid-1980s, individual investors have become more and more interested in managing their own finances -- partly out of necessity as old-time pension plans have been replaced by so-called self-directed plans, such as 401(k)s. Meanwhile, the stock market was enjoying an unprecedented bull market: During the 1990s, stocks rose higher (and more consistently) than they ever had -- in history. In what seemed to be a can't-lose environment, it was easy to become a do-it-yourselfer. Of course, it isn't really a can't-lose environment. You can lose -- and many do -- often with the help of the Internet. The same attributes that make the Net a quick and efficient way to invest also make it an easy conduit for quick losses. Even as it puts more power in your hands, it has breathed new life into the same investing scams that have been around for years by making it easy to reach many thousands of people more quickly than ever before. Now, instead of using the phone to hype stocks, scamsters can use phony investing Web sites or message boards, cloaking their identity.
The efficiency of online-trading sites has given birth to a new generation of stock speculators, who quickly dart into and out of stocks, not investing so much as gambling. Some people quit their jobs for what they believe will be an easy, work-at-home life of day trading. But a study by state regulators shows that most people lose money day trading. If trading stocks for a profit every day were as easy as many people seem to think, brokers wouldn't waste their time pitching stocks over the phone -- they would have all retired rich by now. Words to the wise: The basic rules of the markets and of investing haven't changed. The lucky soul who takes a flier in the market and retires with a fortune remains the rare exception. Selecting investments carefully and holding them for the long term is still the best way to make a buck in the markets. The Internet has simply given you new tools -- in many ways better tools -- to select, buy, and sell those investments.
Excerpted from Online Investing by Dave Pettit & Rich Jaroslovsky & the reporters & editors of The Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition. . Excerpted by permission of Crown Business, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.