Web services can line up your assets

Aggregators: Getting all of your financial data on one Web page is much easier without early bugs.

April 25, 2002|By Lou Dolinar | Lou Dolinar,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Here's one of the great secrets of technology journalism: Any time you read about a nifty new product that supposedly will change the world, odds are that it doesn't work very well. More likely than not, it will disappear without a trace in six months.

On the other hand, if they finally do get the bugs out, you won't hear about it, because everyone will have moved on to the latest hyped item, and it may take a couple more years before you hear of it again.

In the financial realm alone, we've gone through this charade with electronic bookkeeping, tax preparation programs and Web banking, all of which got off to rocky starts and disappeared, only to become indispensable within two or three years.

Well, I can add another service to that list: financial aggregators. They purport to take financial information from more than one Web site and homogenize it into a single Web page. Thus, in theory, an aggregator can combine data from your bank, your brokerage house and your retirement fund to give you an instant view of your net worth, among other things. You could also use that page as the launching pad to explore and manipulate your finances.

Aggregation services are offered though various financial sites - see www.yodlee.com for a pretty good list.

Aggregators were supposed to be the "next big thing" last time I looked, back in July 2000. But faced with the problem of translating data from thousands of individual computer systems, they often fell short.

One service had problems with negative numbers in overdraft accounts. Mortgage data was hard to analyze. I couldn't get at my 401(k) information on Fidelity, though I could view other data there. And in most cases, signing up to get on the various linked sites required filling out paperwork and waiting to get material back in the mail.

Cut to March 2002. More financial institutions have gone online. Yodlee merged with its biggest competitor, Vertical One, during the dot-com flameout. Elves have been programming up a storm.

So I took a break and set up a brokerage account with Fidelity. I saw a tiny note at the bottom of the sign-up screen: "View all your financial accounts online at Fidelity.com. Get secure, one-click access to your investment, bank and credit card accounts - and a snapshot of your total net worth!"

I followed the link and, lo and behold, there was a little "Powered by Yodlee" logo. The interface was a tad friendlier than I remembered, but I was rapidly able to aggregate my 401(k), IRA and non-retirement accounts. It didn't even burp when I threw in the three checking accounts I keep at Fleet Bank.

Mortgages? It ate four out of five and gave me my mortgage balances. This was impressive, since I had not previously signed up to view these online - the program took me directly to the lenders' Web sites, where I set up accounts and passwords. All different banks, all different Web sites.

There was even a spot in the database for hotel rewards and airline mileage programs, which I've been using a lot when I take my daughter to swim meets. Of course, like any good net worth program, there's room for static assets, like houses, that don't show up in the online world. It took perhaps two hours to come up with a comprehensive net worth statement in which 90 percent of the components were updated automatically.

Other services are available, too: I also could have aggregated a page of online calendars (you know, the kind they have on Yahoo and MSN) as well as Web and pop e-mail. Throw in Fidelity's ability to create a custom home page, with news, links, calendars and so forth, and you have a pretty impressive home on the Web.

One caution: Depending on how you set this up, you may be allowing one-password access to all your account information.

Now the service wasn't perfect. Oddly, it couldn't download my Quicken Visa card account, possibly because Quicken is trying to sell its own aggregation service. A quirk in the way I'm registered at the HBSC mortgage site needed to be fixed manually, which is going to take a couple of weeks. Southwest Airlines, meanwhile, wouldn't let me register online, but I should get a password for them in a couple of weeks, as well. But I can put up with the minor shortcomings.

Lou Dolinar writes for Newsday, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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