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November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

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FEBRUARY 25, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 7

E-VESTING
Portals to Riches
Asia's financial sites give useful information, but they must improve their search engines - and offer stock trading
By ASSIF SHAMEEN

Walter Wriston, Citibank's former chairman, once said: "Information about money is becoming as important as money itself." The observation was made two decades ago, but he might as well be talking about today's financial-information portals. As a fanatic follower of the high-tech heavy Nasdaq stock market, I have developed a taste for these websites. They give me free investment advice and information on my favorite companies. Many allow me to trade stocks and subscribe to initial public offerings. Almost everything I have learned about Nasdaq companies came from or through a portal of some sort.

In Asia, some of the bigger financial portals are directly or indirectly linked to local brokerages. But with entry barriers very low, just about everyone these days seems to be launching an Internet financial site. There are already several dozen of them in Southeast Asia. Every other day, it seems I hear of some fund manager, stock market analyst or financial journalist quitting his job to start a new portal. Last week, Singapore hosted a Financial Portals Summit. The conference attracted a horde of venture capitalists, investment bankers and website developers. Everyone in Asia is trying to imitate thestreet.com, the granddaddy of financial advisory portals in the U.S., or Multex.com or worldlyinvestor.com or SmartPortfolio.com.

But beware. Many Asian sites appear to be interested mainly in capital gains. One of my Singaporean friends divides the region's financial portals into two groups: those set up as serious long-term businesses and those formed purely for short-term profit - a shotgun initial public offering, say, or heavy traffic that would entice "angel" investors or venture capitalists to buy a stake at incredibly high valuations. One portal that aspires to join the first group is Singapore's asiastockwatch.com, launched several weeks ago. "What we are trying to do is build a financial gateway to managing assets," says founder Chong Huai Seng, a former fund manager. A subsidiary of listed Internet content provider panpacmedia.com, asiastockwatch.com will soon start a Malaysian portal and plans a Hong Kong site before the end of the year.

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For now, the Singapore-centered asiastockwatch.com gives users a free live news feed, stock prices, access to an archive of corporate information, corporate earnings estimates (from financial information provider Barra) and brokerage reports. Two second-tier financial houses make stock recommendations. Four staff analysts supply a steady stream of advice on the prospects of industries and companies, as well as their take on macroeconomic fundamentals.

But if you want to trade, forget it. The site cannot even help you open a brokerage account. "The beauty of our portal is that we are not affiliated with any financial-services company," says Chong. "Right now we are totally dependent on advertising, although there is not much of that going around." This is meant to reassure me that asiastockwatch.com will not be pushing a certain company because its affiliate is doing a stock placement or is stuck with the shares.

I have other gripes. Like almost all other Asian portals I tried, asiastockwatch.com can stand a lot of improvement. It is too slow. Far too much emphasis is placed on putting information on the portal's front door and too little attention is paid to the search engine. What's the use of going to a library that has every book in the world - but whose cataloguing system leaves much to be desired? What I want from a portal is easy-to-get unique information organized by relevance and date. Asiastockwatch.com's search engine does produce a lot of information, but it is not properly organized. Navigation is another hassle. Good financial portals should supply links that put information in the proper perspective. When I look up something about the networking giant Cisco, I expect to be told where I can find information about its competitor Nortel as well.

Asiastockwatch.com next month will become the first portal in the region to offer a short messaging service through mobile phones. It will alert registered users on the stock recommendations of analysts and other important market information. You may wonder how useful this will be since you cannot trade through asiastockwatch.com. But a Big Bang deregulation that would legalize all forms of online trading at rock bottom costs may be just around the corner. The buzz in Singapore is that the government will announce a Big Bang that would boost online trading the way similar reforms spurred an online revolution in Korea 16 months ago. Today, more than half of all trades on the Seoul stock exchange are done through the Net. Tomorrow, you and I may be doing the same through asiastockwatch.com and other independent financial portals - and paying less than the 1% commission many brokerages in Asia currently charge.


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