Maybe you have logged on to Priceline.com to find a hotel in the right location and at the right price. Or maybe you have customized news from across the globe delivered right to your desktop. These conveniences are brought to you by "intelligent agents" that, based on criteria you specify, seek, sort, and select information from the Internet, and present it to you in neat, personalized packages.
Individual investors may soon be relying on these intelligent agents to research mutual funds, according to industry consultants. By simply supplying some information about financial goals, income and risk tolerance, investors will be able to receive a list of appropriate funds selected from the Web.
Yet, while consumers turn to the Web to find the best deal on golf clubs, it is unclear whether investors will feel comfortable getting financial advice online. Until recently, personalized investment advice was missing from cyberspace. That has changed with the introduction by a handful of companies of personalized on-line advice for participants in 401(k) plans.
Leading providers of 401(k) on-line allocation tools include Financial Engines of Palo Alto, Calif., 401(k) Forum of San Francisco, Standard & Poor's of New York, Ibbotson Associates of Chicago, Fidelity Investments of Boston and Vanguard Group of Malvern, Pa. New entries to the market include DirectAdvice.com, Aslo.com and, in January 2000, Morningstar Associates LLC.
hese sites will pave the way for more advanced financial sites powered by intelligent agents. A June 1998 Forrester report said that "on-line advice via 401(k)'s will introduce the mainstream investing public to the benefits of financial advice." With an estimated six million plan participants using on-line advice engines by the end of 2002, Forrester analysts anticipate the market will soon move beyond retirement-specific advice.
Will that be the cue for the introduction of intelligent agents to the fund industry? The new technology is ready, according to John Payne, a consultant with Cerulli Associates, a research and consulting firm for the financial services industry, in Boston.
"Many of these products are already developed," he said. "How quickly they are released will depend on the competitive marketplace. No one firm will release all the bells and whistles of its development room at once."
While Payne views the addition of intelligent agents to existing on-line search engines as a logical step, he said that whether or not the public embraces the technology will depend on the extent that intelligent agents can "supplant the intangibles found in the human relationship."
Richard Sincere, president of Sincere & Co. of Holliston, Mass., who represents third-party mutual funds to registered investment advisors, agrees. While leaving the legwork to intelligent agents seems a "natural evolution" for the retail side, the most sophisticated investors will not be satisfied with web-based advice, Sincere said.
"People who are more sophisticated, with greater net worths are going to need much more individual care," Sincere said. "However, people who don't have as complicated issues will be able to find solutions on the Web that could take the broker or planner out of the equation. If a broker has sophisticated relationships with clients and deals with estate planning, financial planning, tax planning and investments, it's going to be much harder to be replaced by a web-based solution."
Some industry observers do not think smart agents will be adequate for even novice investors.
"All this technology is useful as a tool, but I haven't seen anything yet that will replace the financial advisor," said Barbara Levin, executive director of the Forum for Investor Advice of Bethesda, Md. "You have to wonder whether a novice investor, the target for many of these sites, really understands enough about his or her risk tolerance for the site to be effective."
"It's unfortunate that in this electronic age, investing is being treated as a product," said Irving Straus, president of the No-Load Mutual Fund Council of New York. "The Web may be useful in purchasing airline tickets or a bar of soap, but investing is too serious business to be left to a Web site. I'd advise investors to stay away from the quick fix and dedicate the necessary time to learn more about investing and understand their financial situation and objectives. A quick look at the Web won't do it for most investors."