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There are as many reasons for using the Internet as an investment tool as there are people. They range from being better informed when speaking to your broker about his or her recommendation, to performing research, to actually investing on-line. To begin, you must have the time and interest--moving about on the Internet can be cumbersome and time consuming. Just be patient and systematic in following through with your ideas.
The Internet is a huge resource that can provide investment help in many areas. We'll concentrate on three:
  • Stock and mutual fund ideas
  • Research for those ideas
  • Actual on-line buying and selling

Idea starters
Investment ideas are plentiful. Let's begin in a serious vein and move to the more-playful or fun places for ideas. You probably couldn't get more serious than by looking at EDGAR (Electronic Data Gathering Analysis and Retrieval database). EDGAR offers U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filings of, for example, Form 10-K, which is similar to an annual report; Form 10-Q, which is a quarterly report; and Form 8-K, which a corporation must file when unexpected events or corporation changes occur that are important for shareholders to know. Many on-line companies offer customized reports filed on EDGAR, or you can use EDGAR free on the government's own web site.
       For different viewpoints, call up the home pages of any of the brokerage firms. They all are a little different but all will have lists their own analysts recommend. Take, for example, the Dean Witter site. It offers an asset-allocation work sheet to help you answer questions about yourself and your risk tolerance. This helps you determine how much money you should invest in stocks and bonds according to your age, goals, and income. It also provides information for children's education costs and how much an investor needs to save to provide a future education in private or public schools.

Nitty gritty research
Call up http://www.nasdaq.com and you can find the most active stocks for that day on the National Association of Securities Dealers Automated Quotations (NASDAQ) over-the-counter market.
       For the latest news on companies and plenty of nitty-gritty financial data on thousands of individual stocks, check out http://www.stocksmart.com. Stock Smart not only offers basic information about companies, but also can help diligent stock investors compare specific data on companies with peer companies. By clicking on the "industry roll-ups" section of Stock Smart's site you can sift through a database of more than 7,000 companies broken down by 27 major industries ranging from autos to utilities, as well as 112 finer divisions called subindustries for things such as vehicle parts suppliers and water service companies.
       Switching to some fun and a different outlook on the financial world, try an area called Motley Fool. It provides a chance to relax with several of your favorite cartoon characters and get some serious stock suggestions at the same time. The Fool's School is particularly good.
       Always remember, though, that while stock recommendations you find at this and other sites often are good, no one is there to tell you when to sell those stocks. It's important that you monitor your stocks for news and have a plan about when to sell. You might use a percentage of profit for your guideline, or decide you need the money to prevent losing another stock market opportunity that you believe offers more opportunity.
      Once you have some investment ideas, make sure they're good ones by doing some digging. For stock ideas, use http://www.researchmag.com, operated by Research Magazine. The InvestorNet section gives you access to a powerful stock-screening feature that can sort some 10,000 stocks by 28 measures, including earnings growth rates and share price volatility.
       Looking for mutual fund ideas? Try http://www.networth.galt.com. The NETworth site has a good fund-screening engine allowing you to sort through more than 7,000 funds using as many as 15 different factors ranging from past performance to sales charges to investment minimums. Registration, required to use this site, is free. Once you've chosen a fund, you can get individual fund reports with charts of net asset value performance and descriptions of the fund's investment style. This site also offers Morningstar profiles, objective data about more than 7,500 funds.
       Another good way to research mutual funds: Call up the home pages from a particular mutual fund company.
       Whether you're a beginner or veteran mutual fund investor, check out the Mutual Fund Investor's Center. The site offers in-depth explanations of how to read a prospectus and how to check if a no-load mutual fund saves you money over time vs. a front-end or back-end loaded fund.
       Perhaps the most objective and comprehensive investment site--no matter what investment vehicles you choose--comes from the American Association of Individual Investors (AAII). Somehow, the authors at AAII manage to produce information meaty enough for skilled investors that also serves novices. We highly recommend this site.

Now you're ready to do a trade on the Internet--or are you? Currently about 15 brokerage firms allow an estimated 120,000 investors to trade stocks, bonds and in some cases, mutual funds, on the web at commissions as much as 80% below what many discount brokers charge. Don't expect any personal advice from a broker about which securities you should be buying or selling.
       And there are investing chat rooms, but many of the discussions aren't about stock ideas. Stockbrokers monitor many of the investing conversations on the web. The brokers may try to get you into a private room to "discuss" your stock ideas. Mary L. Schapiro, president of NASD Regulation, Inc. in Rockville, Md., says, "We want ... the buyer to beware when it comes to trading stocks based on message posting. Investors need to realize that while they might be reading honest conversations, they could just as easily be looking at the work of a corporate insider, stock promoter, or short seller using an alias to deceive the unsuspecting or to manipulate the market."
       Securities industry regulators have taken a leadership position in educating investors about the advantages and the possible pitfalls of some on-line investment information at http://www.sec.gov/consumer/cyberfr.htm and http://www.sec.gov/consumer/inws.htm.
       You, and most other investors, might never use these resources for anything but research. Money Daily reports that SRI Consulting surveys indicate that "no more than 8% of all U.S. households would be logging on to buy and sell securities ... over the next three to five years."
       Of course, before you begin an investment program, make sure you have a solid savings plan with your credit union to cover emergencies. Then, whatever your participation level, before investing on the Internet make sure you're prepared for the pitfalls as much as you're excited about the opportunities. Many people are apprehensive about this somewhat mysterious electronic world, but once they begin, there's no stopping them. So good luck, and may all your picks be winners!

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