- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 9, 2000

The danger of writing about money is that one can accumulate just enough knowledge to be cynical.
Financial writers get jaded from reading too many giddy press releases that are shameless pitches for free advertising. It is hard to be enthusiastic when someone claims to have a drop-dead business idea. Had that person only looked in the Yellow Pages to see how "unique" the idea really was.
One of my oddest experiences in advice-giving happened a few years ago when a colleague sought my input on a business venture that excited him. I chipped in some thoughts and ideas for further research. Privately, I thought the idea was ridiculous. Imagine my surprise when, a few weeks later, he asked me to sign legal papers promising not to discuss the venture with anyone.
No doubt it takes a visionary to believe blindly in something others think is absurd, but even visionaries have to do some basic research. Hobbled by that missing element, my friend's idea fizzled. He clearly was ill-served by lawyers who focused on muzzling unlikely competitors rather than identifying what might have been a potential market for an interesting idea.
This ignorance of the marketplace is inexcusable at a time when so much business information is so easily available. Surfing through financial Web sites takes some patience, but the upside is that a little time spent learning can save investors from making stupid mistakes.
Here are some good Web sites that can provide either a quick financial education or an in-depth review of a particular investment topic:
Raging Bull (www.ragingbull.com) is a lively site that is a metaphor for gung-ho stocks and the market riders who like to talk about them. The best feature is the variety of message boards, which cover every imaginable area of investment. Traders troll through Bull's message boards to find out which stocks investors think are hot.
One doesn't need to be a professional trader to enjoy this site, which offers news and features, commentary on the financial markets, reports on initial public offerings of new companies and Securities and Exchange Commission filings. It is easy to find topics of interest.
TheStreet.com (www.thestreet.com) is a high-quality on-line financial newsroom that offers news, analysis and commentary. It caters to the sophisticated investor someone who is likely to be a day trader or at least tracks daily stock price changes and market trends. However, the stories are written clearly and lack the torturous jargon that infects many specialized financial publications. Message-board and on-line chat rooms also are interesting.
A section on "investing basics" is an excellent resource for beginning investors who want targeted information. It offers a list of good business books, a time line of key business events over the past 100 years, a primer on insurance and a guide to understanding bonds, options, stocks and mutual funds. Readers also can get a lesson on how to read a balance sheet and interpret financial statements. This alone is worth the time for anyone who is serious about looking behind the sales fluff brokers offer.
A good site for learning about the mutual-fund market is www.mfea.com. The site is sponsored by the mutual-fund industry, so the premise is that these popular investment tools are a good idea a premise that stock-focused Web sites don't always share. This is a good place to learn about the basics of mutual funds. One also can pull up funds and compare funds and fund companies. There are good advice columns on planning for college and retirement, getting children started with investing and setting up a balanced portfolio.
Motley Fool (www.fool.com) is irreverent and pithy. The founders' vision is that ordinary fools can make wise stock picks. They hate mutual funds. Model portfolios include both high-risk and conservative strategies, cutely named "Rule Breaker" and "Boring Portfolio." There also are news and features, message boards and some good articles on investing basics. Like Raging Bull, this site assumes bear markets are from a bygone era.
Investors interested in doing their investing on line will want to check out www.metamarkets.com, which offers mutual funds sold only on the Internet. Theoretically, this saves investors money by eliminating overhead and administrative costs. The site includes some good discussion boards and financial news.
Some brokerage houses have outstanding Web sites, even if the information is skewed to the products they sell. One of my favorites is Fidelity Investments' site at www.fidelity.com. This is a good place to get information and access services such as trading, bill paying and investment tools. Another good site for research is Charles Schwab's at www.schwab.com, which includes material similar to Fidelity's and is a little easier to navigate.
Quicken.com's site (www.quicken.com) is a financial portal that includes research, analysis and reports on companies. The site is organized thoughtfully and has information that is accessible to beginners and serious investors. Message boards are not voluminous.
For those still struggling with taxes, San Francisco lawyer Robert Sommers has put together a site called the Tax Prophet (www.taxprophet.com). The articles are written clearly and organized by subject. There is a comprehensive list of good tax links on the Web.
Forbes magazine has a comprehensive Web site, at www.forbes.com, where readers can access news articles, commentary and a recent feature called "Best of the Web." Topics covered include financial planning, bill paying, taxes, selecting a broker, career and retirement planning and investment tools. The spring issue of the magazine rates 260 sites; Forbes' Web site includes reviews of 1,000 other sites.
Have a question on work or family finances? Get in touch with Anne Veigle 202/636-3014 or e-mail (evie1@infi.net).

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