|October 20, 2003
Cracking our list of online investing stars isn't easy; here are the sites that did
By KATHY YAKAL
THERE WAS A TIME, hard though it might be to believe, that we got basic investment information somewhere other than the Internet. Of course, perspicacious news and analysis can still be found in weekly publications such as the one you're reading, yet it, too, is available online. But apart from a dwindling band of Luddites, investors go to the Web to quickly catch up on the markets, stocks or mutual funds.
That said, the ubiquity of the 'Net makes apparent the mediocrity of much of what's found there. To counter that, Barron's presents its annual Best of the Web rankings.
We scored using the same criteria as last year: the sites' usability, their design, and ease of navigation. And now that not everything available is free, as during the Bubble Era, we took fees into consideration, too.
We mulled over each site's universe of market data, and how it was presented. We critiqued editorial content, both original and taken from credible sources, along with each site's tools and interactivity. And we considered the timeliness of each site's content delivery.
We should mention, too, that we did not exclude sites from our corporate cousins at Dow Jones, the publisher of Barron's. We're no "homers," however, as some worthy competitors get top scores.
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Herewith the results:
Once again, Yahoo Bond Center (bonds.yahoo.com1) is our first pick. This corner of Yahoo draws on the best of the Web and presents it in a clean, usable fashion. There are tutorials and a glossary, and bond-market news is posted regularly. Several calculators answer questions, such as whether tax-exempt or taxable bonds are better. A bond screener helps you narrow the field of Treasury, zero-coupon, corporate and municipal bonds. An updated market summary provides ongoing analysis.
Second in line: BondsOnline (www.bondsonline.com2). This site's data access is very good; it uses the search engine from Bondpage.com to help you sift through and trade bonds. Its educational content is clear and thorough. But some attention to detail is needed -- it shows taxable-equivalent muni yields based on the former 38.6% federal tax bracket instead of the current top 35% rate.
For analysis and commentary throughout the day, Briefing.com (www.briefing.com3) is tops. Morningstar (www.morningstar.com4) handles bond-fund information and analysis more than capably. And InvestinginBonds.com (www.investinginbonds.com5), sponsored by the Bond Market Association, is worth a visit, too.
Silicon Investor (www.siliconinvestor.com6) once again got top marks. The site posts hot topics on its opening page, and you can drill down into all that's offered. Silicon Investor divides its message threads into several broad categories, ranging from Aerospace and Defense to Market Trends and Strategies to Web/Information Stocks. The boards are well-attended, with a minimum of fluff.
Honorable Mention goes to The Motley Fool (www.fool.com7). The site has developed quite a community over the years, evidenced by the rate of participation on its message boards -- and the quality of a lot of its postings. Message threads are divided by topic, but there's also an A-Z listing of individual stocks.
Elite Trader (www.elitetrader.com8) is a great compendium of message boards, divided into typical categories (trading, futures, technical analysis) and not-so-typical master topics, like the psychology of trading.
Bloomberg.com (www.bloomberg.com9) debuts as our top pick in the Commentary category this year. Unlike some of its close competitors, it's free. Its business and financial analysis, coming from an array of veteran journalists and analysts, is broad in scope, in-depth, and insightful. Several commentaries are posted every day, covering both long-term and immediate issues.
TheStreet.com (www.thestreet.com10) this year receives Honorable Mention. Pundits like James J. Cramer and Herb Greenberg pepper the site several times daily. While some of TheStreet.com's content is free, you'll have to subscribe to the RealMoney option to get the bulk of the commentary -- $24.95 a month or $229.95 a year.
The Website of our sister publication, The Wall Street Journal (wsj.com11), has dozens of columnists contributing to its pages. Many write strictly money- and market-related pieces, but others provide insight into related topics. Subscriptions are $79 a year ($39 if you already subscribe to the print edition of the Journal or Barron's).
Briefing.com does what no other site does, or at least as well -- provide a running commentary throughout the day, analyzing market moves up to the minute. Some features are free, but the best bet for serious investors is the $25-a-month professional subscription. Delayed portions of Briefing.com commentary also are carried on sites including Yahoo Finance and CNBC on MSN Money.
This year, Hoover's Online (www.hoovers.com12) takes the prize. We reviewed the Pro version, which costs $1,995 a year (for one to five users); some features are free. Hoover's database covers 12 million companies, and the site maintains this depth well. Type in a ticker symbol, and all of your data options appear. An overview lays out key numbers and people, industry information and competitors, and links to reports from partners. Other links take you to financials, news, and other critical information.
MultexInvestor (www.multexinvestor.com13), our first choice last year, is a close second this year. It's big on research reports, providing access to over 1.5 million from more than 700 brokerages and independent-research providers. Fundamentals are strong, and mutual-fund information is provided by Lipper. A special section on investment ideas helps trigger investing possibilities, as does a very complex screening tool.
The best we've found in this category is Economy.com (www.economy.com16). This is actually a network of sites, each with its own set of data, reports, and tools. The Dismal Scientist (www.economy.com/dismal17) offers a great deal of news and commentary, in addition to lots of economic data: real-time coverage of more than 180 economic indicators for 40 countries, and more, for $29.95 a month. And Free Lunch (www.economy.com/freelunch18) is just that: over 900,000 free economic- and financial-data series.
Honorable Mention this year again goes to the Economist (www.economist.com21). Opinion pieces weigh in on global business, political, and economic news. The Economist also offers market updates and data. Most of the site is reserved for subscribers, who pay $69 a year (print subscribers have complimentary access).
Other sites we like include the Department of Commerce Bureau of Economic Analysis (www.bea.doc.gov22), which offers national and international data series, as well as breakouts by region and industry, and EconData.net (www.econdata.net23), which has collected roughly 1,000 links to Web sites that provide data.
The Motley Fool is our favorite here again. Content is divided into several main topics, like Investing Basics, How to Value Stocks, DRIP (dividend reinvestment) Investing, and Get a Broker. Dozens of calculators answers questions and help you evaluate the effectiveness of your financial strategy.
Honorable Mention goes to SIA Investor (www.siainvestor.com24), sponsored by the Securities Industry Association, the industry's trade group. It covers topics like risk and return, and diversified portfolios. A lengthy, thorough dictionary helps explains terms.
Optionetics (www.optionetics.com25) is a good example of how a site can take a complex subject like options and provide supportive education for traders. The Investor's Clearinghouse (www.investoreducation.org26) takes on a wide number of topics. Thomson Investors Network (www.thomsoninvest.net27) provides a good general educational section, too. The SEC's educational site (www.sec.gov/investor.shtml28) also lets you file complaints and get tips to avoid fraud.
It was a close race, but The Wall Street Journal outran its competitors. The news links let you set the home page to focus on U.S., Europe, Asia, or other news categories. Other links take you to categories, like U.S. Business, World News, Economy, and Earnings. Special editions cover media and marketing, health, real estate and law. Specialized coverage is available for numerous industries.
Nipping at its heels is Reuters.com (www.reuters.com29), which gets our Honorable Mention. There's a reason why so many sites post stories from Reuters -- its coverage of business and financial news is broad in scope and in-depth. There are other sites that cover breaking and ongoing stories well, including CBS MarketWatch. (cbs.marketwatch.com30), which has both original content and a variety of wire stories.
CNN Money (money.cnn.com31) reels in the big stories and offers links to other financial stories. Yahoo Finance (finance.yahoo.com32) is a good place for no-frills coverage of news from various sources.
This year, the Financial Times (www.ft.com33) is our favorite here. Its editorial content is outstanding. Stories and columns cover economic and general events in critical regions of the world. Major stories are posted throughout the day. News is also available by industry, and roughly 200 business reports are produced every year. Besides the news, the FT provides thorough market coverage and data for the world's major financial centers. While some content is free, subscriptions cost $99-$290 a year.
The Wall Street Journal gets our Honorable Mention. In addition to breaking out news by region and industry, the Journal's Briefing Books provide tons of market data, including quotes, financials, and analyst ratings.
CBS MarketWatch and Morningstar also are good at providing news and research data for international markets. If you're interested in American depositary receipts, you should investigate ADR.com (www.adr.com34), from JPMorgan. We didn't run into many sites that covered whole global regions, but some handle bite-sized pieces capably. Nikkei Net Interactive (www.nni.nikkei.co.jp35), for example, covers Japan and ASX (www.asx.com.au36) is a great introduction to the Australian market.
Morningstar has it all for both beginning and seasoned investors. Articles and astute commentary from Morningstar analysts take center stage. Educational pages help new investors get up to speed. Data detail the minutia of individual funds. And Morningstar's tools are exceptional. Besides standards like an exceptional portfolio tracker, calculators, screeners and discussion boards, the site offers several more innovative tools, like an "X-ray" of your portfolio. Many of Morningstar's features are free, but you'll have to pay $11.95 a month ($109 a year or $189 for two years) for full access.
Honorable Mention this year goes to SmartMoney.com (www.smartmoney.com37), which is published jointly by Dow Jones and Hearst. News and analysis are posted upfront, along with boxes displaying the best and worst of funds currently. Enter a symbol, and a page presents voluminous data, including a snapshot of the fund, screens outlining risk and return, expenses, and related information.
Other sites excel at providing mutual-fund data and tools. CNBC on MSN Money (moneycentral.msn.com38), offers crisp presentations of data along with a smattering of commentary and excellent screening tools.
For the first time, Morningstar takes first place in this category. It offers an extremely customizable portfolio tracker that provides a ton of analytical tools (some of which fall under the paid-subscriber umbrella). You can import existing portfolios from desktop Quicken or Money, from Websites hosted by Microsoft, Intuit, or Yahoo!, and from AOL. Your portfolio can display any of a few dozen columns, and easily records buys and sells, splits and dividends. And it offers an impressive array of analytical tools and views, like an "X-ray" view, which provides several text and graphical analyses of your portfolio, like its asset allocation, statistics and holdings, and stock types and sectors.
The portfolio tracker at CNBC on MSN Money takes Honorable Mention this year. It's free and quite customizable. Existing portfolios in Microsoft Money or Quicken, Yahoo Finance, or a handful of brokers can be imported. The Portfolio Review displays your asset allocation, and numerous other tools give you better insight into your portfolio.
GainsKeeper (www.gainskeeper.com39) helps you maximize after-tax returns by providing an armload of tools. You can, for example, run what-if scenarios to gauge certain sales' tax implications, and see the impact of wash sales and corporate actions. Some features are free; subscriptions range from $49 to $149. Other portfolio trackers we recommend include those at Smart Money, CBS MarketWatch, Money.net (www.money.net40; streaming real-time quotes for $14.95 a month), and Quicken.com (www.quicken.com41).
CNBC on MSN Money's screening tools took the top slot this year. It's the cleanest, most customizable screener you can get free. The provided screening criteria range from investment return to price ratios to current financials to analyst projections. The resulting screen displays basic information and financial data about the company.
Smart Money took Honorable Mention. Like CNBC on MSN Money, the screening tool itself is very simple to use. Criteria are built around investing data like price/price changes/volume, historical growth, and technical analysis.
The resulting table offers fundamentals, histograms, and thumbnail charts, with links to research data. Smart Money's screeners (mutual funds, too) are a part of the paid-subscriber area.
Wall Street City (www.wallstreetcity.com42) offers a very complex screening tool that provides criteria for filtering mutual funds, options, stocks, and earnings for $9.95 per month.
MarketScreen ($29.95 a month after free trial) is especially helpful to technical analysts; it offers several types of market screens and scans. Several simpler screeners are at sites like Quicken.com and Yahoo Finance.
These are the Swiss army knives of Websites. Yahoo Finance has serious competition in this category, but it's unbeatable again this year. It's the sleekest, best overall site for market research and news. Constantly updated news and commentary comes from some of the best sources on the Web. Market data aptly cover stocks and mutual funds, options and bonds. Global-market coverage is excellent, and market data and news are covered by industry. Active message boards and chat rooms give investors the opportunity to interact, and good screening tools and a portfolio tracker help you manage your holdings and look for investing ideas. Tutorials help educate new investors, and a real-time quote tracker is available for $9.95 a month.
Honorable Mention this year goes again to CNBC on MSN Money. It offers market news, data, and commentary in a clear interface. A top-notch portfolio tracker plus screening tools enhance your research and record-keeping. Stocks and mutual funds are covered equally well.
Quicken.com again scored well. And Morningstar also has an exceptional supersite, although unlike CNBC on MSN Money and Yahoo, there's a fee for full coverage. Smart Money also charges for full access ($5.95-$19.95 a month), and provides excellent data and tools.
The Wall Street Journal took top honors, with globe-spanning coverage. Tech stocks, as well as business issues related to technology, are featured, as are topics like gadgets and e-commerce. Regular commentary analyzes industry happenings. Overall, the Journal's tech stories and columns are insightful and in-depth.
C|NET's News.com (www.news.com43) takes Honorable Mention. Since its debut, it's done a stellar job of providing breaking tech news throughout the day. Its news stories, features, special reports, and columns give investors valuable information for the tech segment of the market.
Tech watchers should also visit the San Jose Mercury News site (www.siliconvalley.com44) for excellent tech-news coverage and commentary. CNN Money provides an in-depth look at both market data and news, and the New York Times offers special coverage of this sector often.
Biotech investors have several good choices for coverage: Bio.com (www.bio.com45); MIT's Technology Review (www.technologyreview.com46), which also covers high tech; and Wong's BioTech Stock Report (www.biotechnav.com47).
Serious chartists should look first to this category's heavyweight, Prophet.net (www.prophet.net48). It offers the best set of technical analysis tools that we've seen. Several charting tools and some data are available free, but more sophisticated tools cost $9.95 to $34.95 a month, some of which incorporate real-time data. All paid subscription levels offer 130-plus technical studies, roughly 40 years of historical data, and 25 custom study sets. Real-time streaming intraday charts and portfolio data, as well as bid/ask prices are available in the top two levels. You can set up watch lists and save favorite chart styles.
Clearstation (www.clearstation.com49) earned an Honorable Mention in this category again. It's an exceptionally well-designed site that offers an effective three-pronged approach to investing: technical analysis, fundamentals, and community interaction. The interactive graphing tool lets you choose from several indicators and overlays, view multiple charts simultaneously, and share them with others.
Iqchart (www.iqchart.com50) is another excellent tool for technical analysis, incorporating real-time data, numerous indicators, a portfolio tracker and scanning tool, and real-time watch lists. Cost: $34.95/month.
For $20/month, Decision Point (www.decisionpoint.com51) offers flexible charting and historical data, chart books, and investor education. StockCharts.com (www.stockcharts.com52) and BigCharts (www.bigcharts.com53) are also good homes for technical analysis.