Take stock of investments online

April 03, 2000|By Lou Dolinar | Lou Dolinar,NEWSDAY

Maybe this dates me, but I can remember when one of the neatest tricks I would demonstrate on my computer was using Quicken financial management software to download my 401(k) and stock portfolio.

It took a day to set up, because I had to look up all the weird abbreviations the various funds used. But once it was in place, I could dial into the Quicken database via modem for, if memory serves, a buck and a half, and get an updated list of securities values.

Note that I say modem, because they hadn't implemented a Web version of the service. When the connection worked (a dicey proposition), the values were automatically downloaded and inserted into a spreadsheet-like form. Based on the number of shares I owned, my bottom-line investment value was computed.

This was what, five years ago? Today, I can get the same stuff free, 24 hours a day, instantly updated and in real time. Customized investment information is available in so many ways, in so many places, that you need a specialized Web financial service that does nothing but track other specialized Web financial services.

The advice that follows isn't directed at serious investors. Rather, it's for people like me, who tend to put money in something and forget about it (probably a good idea for someone with my track record in the market).

Just as Web banking has become ubiquitous and makes more sense for light-duty check-writing than PC-based finance programs, it's practical to use the Web, rather than a PC-based program, to keep track of investments that you don't spend a lot of time reinvesting.

Here are online sources to check:

Your company's 401(k) management firm. You probably got a note from your human resources department about this and promptly threw it away, so here's a reminder: Many, if not most, 401(k) custodians allow Web access to the retirement accounts your company has created for you.

There's nothing for you to set up. You get an account number and password, and this lets you go in and look at your 401(k) investments and balances, which are updated daily. This is a huge improvement over other systems.

You can, to a limited degree, trade online with these kinds of accounts and shift your holdings among the various fund offerings. As with Web banking, this is a no-cost, no-effort no-brainer.

Your brokerage firm. Same as above: Anything you receive on paper is probably available online now, or will be within the year. Sure, you know about this. This is merely a reminder for those grandmas and grandpas who thought they bought computers to collect e-mailed photos of the grandkids.

Stock quote boxes. If you're just looking for stock prices, as opposed to portfolio management, you have, oh, 4 million or 5 million possible sources, with everyone from your broker to your bank to Excite to the corner deli embedding those little quote-search boxes on their Web pages.

Why do I bother reminding you? Virtually all those services have 20-minute delays attached.

Why use stale quotes when you can have up-to-the-minute prices, same as the brokers, for free? A comparative handful of brokerage firms offer this service to the public, as opposed to paying customers, and they all require you to register and use a password. I like Thompson Investors Network myself (http://rtq.thomsoninvest.net), but you'll find others if your run a search on "free, real-time stock quotes."

Stock quote applets and programs. These work like my old Quicken: You enter a list of stocks, and the number of shares you own. The program automatically fetches information about the entire portfolio and computes the impact of price changes on the overall value of your account.

Some of the big Web portals portals Yahoo is one of them offer similar services. You can usually determine how often these update.

There are plenty of potential bells and whistles some will alert you if the stock moves more than a predetermined percentage, while purporting to assist with such esoterica as technical analysis. A couple will send stock data to your pager, along with price alerts.

You'll find these programs in the usual shareware sites (www.tucows.com has a good selection, along with ratings). Prices range from free to more than $400; the free programs usually are ad-supported. If you want to get your feet wet for free, try Netstock 1.48 at www.splitcycle.com or Medved QuoteTracker (www.quotetracker.com). QuoteTracker can fetch quotes in real time if you're registered for a supported quote server.

Java and Javascript applets for Web designers. If you're building a Web site, there are cool stock tickers that can be embedded in your page. Most of these use Javascript. You basically cut and paste a script into your regular HTML code and modify it to include the stocks you want to watch. Prices update any time your reload the page.

The price is usually an ad blurb. Check your search engine under "java stock ticker" for a list; the one at www.selfpage.com is good. Some programs require a license fee if you use them commercially.

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