Just as with other wholesale markets, the small user needs a professional dealer to carry out the investment or sell orders. There is a range of competing firms offering services, and which one you use depends on the type of service needed, though the lines between them are increasingly blurred. Most of them have both telephone and online trading, though for some trades – such as overseas shares – some insist on telephone contact only.
It is always tricky finding the right professional firm, whether architect, dentist, solicitor or doctor, and that applies to investment intermediaries as well. It is not just a matter of financial competence, but also of technical efficiency. There are big, high street financial institutions such as banks and building societies with branches round the country and advertisements all over the place. There are also good local firms experienced in the needs of small investors that can produce performance equal to any of the biggest names in the country. And there are hosts of computer- and telephone-based intermediaries with varying specialisms, costs and services. The best way to pick the company is through recommendation, preferably from satisfied customers, or as a second best from write-ups in newspapers and magazines. Without seeing the people, the buildings, the organization and so on, it is hard to get a feel for how reputable or efficient the broker is, so an investor is driven far more to relying on reputation, recommendation and newspaper opinion.
Make sure that the broker or intermediary used is authorized and hence supervised by the City authorities. Not only does it provide reassurance of some quality monitoring, but provides a way to complain and seek compensation.
The rise in scams has prompted the Financial Services Authority and the police to issue warnings to investors. Emails or letters claiming to be from the FSA or the Financial Ombudsman asking for personal information or money are fakes – do not respond. Telephone the FSA on 0845 606 9966; the Ombudsman on 0845 080 1800.
An uninvited phone call from people you do not know trying to sell shares is likely to be a scam. They are from ‘boiler rooms’ – bogus stockbrokers, usually based overseas (sometimes with a UK freepost forwarding address). You will almost certainly lose all the money. It is not just novice investors who are duped this way. Most of the victims are experienced investors, with 41 per cent of victims having been investing for over 11 years. The average loss is £20,000 with the biggest individual loss recorded by the City of London Police being £1.2 million. The scams net between £200 million and £500 million in the UK every year. They sometimes promise to recover money lost to the original boiler room, or to purchase those worthless shares (once an up-front fee has been paid). Some offer to buy shares you own, usually at a higher price than their market value, and ask for payment up front, as a form of security, which they say will be returned if the sale does not go through. They sometimes demand signing a form to prevent disclosure of the offer details. Some investors are encouraged to sell previously highly regarded company shares, such as banks and financial institutions and to invest in green or new technology shares, or even to take out loans to fund new investments. These fraudsters are usually well spoken and knowledgeable. They can be very persistent, phoning many times and even sending documents or forms to complete. It is an advance fee scam – they take the money and you never hear from them again. They may claim you have already entered into a contract to buy the shares and are under an obligation to pay. This is not true and such contracts are unenforceable under UK law. Fraudsters occasionally have the gall to threaten investors with police action if they refuse to go ahead with an initially agreed transaction. The police have said they “do not and would not act as a debt collection agency in these matters”.
Generally it is against the law to ‘cold call’ trying to sell investments, so authorized firms do not contact you out of the blue offering to buy or sell shares, but there has been a dramatic increase in the fake use of names, registration numbers and addresses of people authorized by the FSA. They even copy the websites of authorized firms, making subtle changes such as using different phone numbers.
There is no recourse, right to complain or to compensation in the UK, as boiler rooms are based overseas and so not authorized by the FSA. The FSA has published lists of known scams but the names change so quickly that is little help. So if you have not invited the call, just hang up.
See also www.fsa.gov.uk/pages/consumerinformation/scamsand swindles/index.shtml and www.cityoflondon.police.uk/CityPolice/ Departments/ECD/Fraud/boilerroom.htm.
If you have been contacted by an unauthorized overseas firm or suspect a boiler room scam, forward the information to the FSA or the police as they can sometimes get an overseas government to take action. The City of London Police is responsible for coordinating Operation Archway, the national intelligence reporting system for boiler room fraud: Operation Archway, City of London Police, 21 New Street, London EC2M 4TP; or PO Box 36451, London EC2M 4WN; Telephone: 020 7601 2222; E-mail: [email protected]
Then there is the constant fear that online transactions can be eavesdropped by shady characters who might use your particulars to deal for their own profit, or hack into your or your broker’s computer and tamper with data. There is always the danger of computer failures too. Computers seem to have reached about the level of development and reliability of cars in the late 1920s when drivers had to know about magnetos, drive belts and distributors to cope with the continuous breakdowns. That means, just when you need to deal, one of the machines may be having its wick trimmed or its elastic being changed. Also, online trading does not generate share certificates. The shares are still registered to the new owner, but it is all computerized and generally the broker will hold the title to them in a ‘nominee’ account, which is administratively tidy but could mean the investor cannot easily change allegiance to another broker.
Another danger is the seductive world of computing. Sitting at a home screen with access to all that information, it is easy to be lulled into thinking the data are comprehensive and reliable, and also into making a snap decision. It almost feels like a game using Monopoly money, so one is drawn into making investments at the click of a mouse that could wipe out the family’s savings.
To join one of the growing band of online stockbrokers, one needs to get on the website and follow the instructions for registering. Many of them demand a cash account from which payments can be made, with almost all of them requiring a float of cash deposited with the brokerage. There is interest on this, but generally below what it could earn elsewhere. The signing-on procedure asks you to set a password to prevent others looking at, much less tampering with your investments, and explains the minimum level of software capability needed to get into the system.
Technical competence and infrastructure show in the speed and effectiveness of reactions to telephone calls or online contacts. Timing can be crucial in a trade and there have been complaints about the speed of reaction and indeed the ability to get anything done. In 1999 a Jersey-based investor who had his computer screen displaying share prices contacted his telephone broker and saw the value of his holdings halve while the stockbroker left him hanging on listening to a recorded message telling him all customer service operatives were busy and he would be connected as soon as one was free. He was kept on hold until somebody could be found to talk to him. So great were his irritation and frustration at watching the continuing plunge of his investments and his inability to sell that he had a fatal heart attack.
Some people, especially on the net, have had problems getting through to the broker at all and others have found the promised services permanently on the verge of arriving. Before picking a broker, therefore, a few questions are in order, such as service quality, terms and conditions, including redress in such cases.
Stockbrokers act for individual investors by executing their orders in the market, so the punter telephones the broker who holds the agreed account and gives the order to buy or sell. Quite often, during the conversation, the broker calls up the appropriate page on the computer system and tells the investor just what the price is standing at and, if that is agreeable, the deal goes ahead.
Online intermediaries usually demand investors deposit a float from which they deal but they do pay interest on the float until the money is actually invested. People are understandably reluctant to get involved in an area rife with unseen dangers. But it is changing rapidly. Customers happy to see a waiter disappear with their credit card for 20 minutes without worrying whether he was nipping up the road for a shopping spree were also prepared to read their card number out to some unknown person at the other end of the telephone for an order. These people are now increasingly buying books, CDs, holiday tickets and the like on the net and relatively few have been ripped off.
From time to time there are tales of pimply schoolboys extracting credit card numbers from online trades, but few people have lost money as a consequence and it is a lot rarer than having your car stolen or your house burgled. The danger of some hacker getting into your computer or dealing at your expense is pretty remote. Viruses are a hazard but can be avoided by having a continuously updated virus checker, which applies to anyone who goes onto the net.
There are millions of online stockbroking accounts in Europe and the number is growing. Many of these people have little loyalty to any broker or market, but will trade where it is safe, cheap and convenient.
The more adventurous, who want to buy a US share, may want to go through a US broker in the United States. It is liable to be cheaper than the British stockbrokers, and cheaper even than the European offshoots of the US brokers. A site that compares the performance of several online brokers on costs, speed of service and other benefits including helping small investors to get a subscription at the time of the first listing, is www.europeaninvestor.com.
One of the big thrills in the United States is day trading. This requires spotting the small fluctuations and getting in and out of shares within one day. For all the fashions and the hype, and despite the many books explaining how to make a fortune from the practice, it looks as if hardly any private investor has made any money on the system. Many lose heavily.
All this can be accessed and organized from anywhere, via telephones and computers, and some brokers are also introducing voice-recognition systems to provide share prices over the telephone. Whether the trading intermediary is a stockbroker or independent financial adviser, there are three basic ways the service is provided – discretionary, advisory or execution-only.
In effect the investor is handing over control to the adviser. It will still mean setting out the overall plan or strategy at the start, as discussed in Chapter 5: the degree of risk, the time horizon, the preference for capital growth or income, and so on. That means a prolonged preliminary discussion setting out those priorities and aims. Once the broker knows what you are trying to achieve with your money, the advice can be more sensible and helpful. After that, however, it is all up to the professional to decide what and when to buy and sell. It had therefore better be someone whose integrity, judgement and effectiveness you trust.
This approach has the advantage of using an experienced market operator with access to more information on a continuous basis than is available to a lay investor. It also has the benefit of swift reaction – the adviser/stockbroker can react immediately to a market movement and not have to wait until the investor has spotted it or gives approval. Needless to say there is a price: one has to pay for expertise.
Discretionary service demands a reasonable minimum amount of initial cash or holdings – the lowest is about £10,000 but £50,000 or £100,000 is more common, and the management fee is about 0.5 to 2 per cent of the size of the portfolio. The investor hands over the portfolio and gives the broker the right to manage as best he or she can, buying and selling as seems right. One gets a regular report of what the investments are and how much they are worth, plus notification of any dealings. Some brokers will also take into this service management of bank accounts, pensions and even insurance.
Investors who want to retain control over the portfolio but would still like to have the professional’s advice can opt for receiving suggestions. This works on the assumption that not every suggestion will lead to a trade, or it might be easier to hand the whole thing over and let the adviser get on with it. At least it allows the novice to learn the way market participants think and the sort of stimulus that prompts action, as well as getting informed opinion. It could be a type of tuition process on the road to taking over total control of one’s investments.
There is obviously a fee for this service as well, though it is lower than for the complete discretionary operation.
Investors with the confidence that they know what they want and how to find it, with enough information and time to watch the markets, can save themselves money by going it alone. All that is needed then is to go on the website or the telephone and give instructions on what is to be done. Some of the brokers/advisers provide free services to help, such as elementary charts and portfolio valuations, as well as some highlights from stockbrokers’ circulars.
Transaction-only brokers are available widely, mostly online. Information on low-cost brokers is available through tables published in many of the more serious newspapers and investment magazines.