The Cutting Edge: COMPUTING / TECHNOLOGY / INNOVATION : Internet Contains a Wealth of Personal Finance Assistance

Daniel Akst, a Los Angeles writer, is a former assistant business editor for technology at The Times

Information about personal finance abounds in cyberspace. It's all over CompuServe, America Online and Prodigy. But many on-line denizens don't realize the extent to which it's busting out on the Internet as well. The other day, for instance, I was wondering whether closed-end municipal bond funds might still be a good deal, so I posted that question to misc.invest.funds.

Don Katz, botanist by training, university administrator by trade and mutual fund investor by avocation, provided a detailed and knowledgeable response from deep in the heart of Wisconsin. Hey, pretty good, I thought. Let's poke around a little further. What I found was an astonishing array of investment resources on the Net.

The key to tapping into many of these is the World Wide Web, which many Internet and Prodigy users can easily access. Web access is coming to CompuServe and America Online soon. (Internet users with no Web experience might try typing lynx at the UNIX prompt, followed by one of the long addresses given here.) One of the most useful Internet investment resources is NetWorth (at the Web site http://networth.galt.com), whose founders had the insight that mutual fund companies would pay them to make prospectuses and other information available on line. Although the companies pay, users get the benefit for free. So far, NetWorth has signed up a number of prominent fund families, including Benham, Calvert, Dreyfus, Gabelli, IAI, Montgomery, Twentieth Century and others. You can visit this site and read fund prospectuses on the spot, or download and print them. The funds will send you a paper version shortly afterward, using the address you enter when you register to use NetWorth. Founder Robert Frasca promises not to sell your name to a lot of junk mailers. But I never get much out of fund prospectuses. If that's how you feel too, NetWorth also offers information on more than 5,000 funds from the fund-tracking firm Morningstar, with a powerful search feature that lets you narrow your hunt by performance over any one of several periods, as well as assets, yield, fees, the type of fund you're after, and more. (Morningstar is also on America Online, and CompuServe's basic service includes a rival database with equally powerful searching.) Finding the Morningstar reports was confusing. The entry with the word Morningstar in it actually leads to Morningstar's promotional area, where you can find out about Morningstar's various offerings. To tap into the Morningstar database , you actually need to look under Fund Search.

Still, this is a nifty site, and the good stuff goes beyond Morningstar. For instance, NetWorth will let you establish a portfolio for yourself, so you can keep track of your funds' activity as often as you wish. One of my favorite things about NetWorth is that you don't need Web access to use it. You can use electronic mail to submit a portfolio of funds you're tracking and receive periodic reports by return e-mail. You can even subscribe so that you receive daily or weekly closing prices in a format that enables Quicken, the popular personal finance software, to import them. (For general information, send e-mail to info@mfunds.com.)

NetWorth also offers hypertext links to a host of other investment-related or financially oriented Web sites, including a keen one on closed-end mutual funds, which is what got me started in the first place.

To visit the Internet Closed-End Fund Investor, cruise over to http://www.icefi.com some evening (it's unavailable during the day, evidently). Says Katz: "Best Internet service I've ever run across in investments." Besides prices and graphs, it offers midweek estimates of net asset value, normally published weekly for such funds. This is important for investors wanting to play the difference between NAV and market prices. Looking for stock quotes? NetWorth provides them, as does QuoteCom, which offers up to five free quotes daily on stocks, mutual funds and some other securities. Sent e-mail to info@quote.com or visit http://www.quote.com.

There's also a fine Web site for up-to-the-minute market information at http://www.secapl.com/cgi-bin/qs, where Security APL, which makes portfolio management systems, offers access to quotes and market indexes. The Security APL site even offers hypertext links to SEC filings via the EDGAR project, which provides Internet access to 10-Ks and other corporate SEC reports. Edgar works beautifully as a Web site, at http://town.hall.org/edgar/edgar.html. Katz points out that you can trade stocks on the Internet as well, just as you can on commercial services such as Prodigy. The K. Aufhauser & Co. brokerage, for instance, has a Web site at http://aufhauser.com/. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, meanwhile, has an experimental stock chart server covering nearly 400 stocks at http://www.ai.mit.edu/stocks/graphs.html. Conspicuously absent from NetWorth is Fidelity Investments, the Boston-based mutual fund giant, which has its own site at http://www.fid-inv.com with information about the various Fidelity funds. As one user wrote, "Not bad for a first try, although I hope that major improvements will be forthcoming."

Another really good personal finance Web site, the GNN Personal Finance Center, is at http://gnn.interpath.net/gnn/meta/finance/index.html, but our man Katz says the best place to start is the Yahoo list, specifically at http://www.yahoo.com/Economy/. Choose Markets and Investments from the list. There are a host of other investment-oriented Web sites, but let's not forget the newsgroups. misc.invest, misc.invest.funds, misc.invest.stocks, misc.invest.futures, misc.invest.technical and misc.invest.canada are all worth a look, depending on your interests.

Of course, as is often the case on line, the quality of the advice and information you get varies a lot: Stock promoters and get-rich-quick schemes abound in cyberspace. Caveat emptor .

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Daniel Akst, a Los Angeles writer, is a former assistant business editor for technology at The Times. He welcomes messages at akstd@news.latimes.com but regrets that he cannot reply to every one.

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To Get It the Old-Fashioned Way . . .

The array of personal financial resources in cyberspace is so vast you could write a book about it. Fortunately, somebody's already done so.

Michael Wolff's "Net Money: Your Guide to the Personal Finance Revolution on the Information Highway" (Random House, $19) is a well-designed and comprehensive volume that goes way beyond investing to cover cyberspace resources for shopping, taxes, funding a college education, finding a job, even writing a resume.

The book also gets into commercial and shareware software packages for personal finance and investing, and it lists financially oriented bulletin board systems. As for investing, the volume covers just about everything, including on-line brokerage accounts, economic statistics, commodities, futures and more.

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