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Trading stocks the wireless way

Published Sep. 29, 2005

The latest gadget, a two-way pager, allows traders to get stock quotes and put in buy and sell orders.

Not that Bruce Amos takes advice from inanimate objects, but his pager has given him some good stock tips.

Like the time in May it alerted him that maybe it was time to sell Safeguard Scientifics, the Wayne, Pa., venture capital company.

Amos, managing underwriter for ECS Underwriting, an Exton, Pa., company that helps businesses manage environmental risk, had paid about $74 for Safeguard in April.

Just a few months ago, he would have had to log onto his computer to get stock quotes. But with a new product from Fidelity Brokerage Services, he simply programmed a special two-way pager to notify him when Safeguard hit $95. The pager went off May 20 as he was driving on Philadelphia's Schuylkill Expressway. He pulled over at the first exit and sold.

"I thought that by looking at its previous highs and lows that 95 or 98 a share was where its next peak was going to be," Amos said. "It was actually no more scientific than that."

Since he began using the pager in March, Amos has been trading from airplanes, restaurants and just about anywhere he wants.

"The whole idea here is to see if I can make money with this," Amos said, staring at the BellSouth pagerthat includes a larger-than-average screen and a tiny keyboard where he can type in orders.

Call it Inspector Gadget meets Wall Street. The latest must-have technology for people who trade actively is a pager, cellular phone or handheld organizer that lets people buy and sell stocks, check account balances and generally monitor the market.

"This makes people reachable 24 hours a day, and not just when you're sitting in front of a computer," said Octavio Marenzi, director of electronic delivery services at Meridien Research in Boston.

Marenzi estimates that fewer than 10,000 people trade with wireless devices so far, but hethinks that number will grow. Gadgets appeal to people who pay a lot of commissions, he said.

"These are going to be sort of the serious investors and typically people who have a lot of money invested and from that perspective are very important to the brokerage firms," Marenzi said.

But using wireless devices may not always be smart.

"The basic appeal is for those individuals who trade often and have a position in a certain security," said Dan Burke, senior brokerage analyst at Gomez Advisors, a Concord, Mass., research firm. "The downside is it's designed for people who are active traders and so might prompt people to trade more often than they should."

In addition to Fidelity, Muriel Siebert & Co. offers a service called MobileBroker. Discover Brokerage plans to let customers make wireless trades, monitor stocks and get other information later this summer via handheld computers, including the Palm Pilot organizers. Bank of America in March announced similar plans for its banking customers.

"It's a real good gadget," said Muriel Siebert, head of the firm that bears her name. "You can take it on the golf course with you, where you can't take a phone. It's less than an inch thick, and I keep it in the outside pocket of my purse. I use it just to see what's going on."

The service is not cheap. The pagers cost $359 at Fidelity and Siebert, plus a $49.95 monthly service charge.

Trades placed via Fidelity's pager cost $24.95, the same as placing the trade over the phone but as much as $10 more than the charge for active traders who place trades via desktop personal computers. At Siebert, commissions are $29.95 per 1,000 shares, $15 more than the online cost.

At Fidelity, customers have to have at least $100,000 in assets or make 36 trades a year.

"I think it's just another feature," said Tracey Curvey, senior vice president of Fidelity Brokerage. "If you're already a pager user and you're an active investor, this lets you trade and get information at your convenience and not someone else's."

Amos especially likes sending and receiving e-mail with his pager, in addition to its investing capabilities.

Every morning, the pager sends him information on 10 stocks he tracks, including the prices at which investors are willing to buy and sell. He figures having current information helps him capitalize on the big price swings in many of the tech stocks he follows.

"It's kind of an amazing thing," he said. "I don't have to be online, and I don't have to be near a phone."

Although it is tempting to use the pager like a toy and trade too much, Amos said he sticks to his discipline of choosing target prices for stocks that interest him.

"I'm not interested in my portfolio trying to beat the market. I leave that to my IRAs. Those are in stocks and index funds that will track the market and that's a good plan for me," he said. "This is primarily the money I'm willing to put at risk of losing all of it. But I don't trade just because I have the technology."

Eventually, he hopes to have a single device that will let him talk on the phone, trade stocks, send and receive e-mail and keep track of addresses and appointments.

Despite advances in technology, it is unlikely that people will one day manage their entire financial lives with a device that can fit in their hands, said Bill Doyle, an analyst with Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass. Balancing checkbooks and researching stocks simply require a bigger screen, he said.

"When you're looking at your financial life," he said, "it's more complicated than a single line."