Not all that long ago, only your broker could create electronic, updated-by-the-minute portfolios of your investments. Now you can get them free at sites all over the World Wide Web.
In exchange for minimal personal information (mostly your name, Zip code and e-mail address, which they promise not to sell to anyone else), these sites track your investments, update prices throughout the trading day, and provide charts, news alerts, research and far more stuff than most people could ever use.
All of it is free, though most of the sites badger you with typical Web ads.
For this review, I logged on to five sites that offer free portfolio tracking and entered my stocks, mutual funds and cash (most sites don't handle bonds well, if at all) and began playing around. I can't vouch for the sites' ability to handle trades, since I didn't buy or sell anything while I was there. But for portfolio tracking, analysis and research, the sites are extraordinary.
The bad news for buy-and-ignore investors like me is that once you've logged on and input all your stocks, you can no longer disregard the brief market fluctuations that you might be better off not knowing about.
For instance, did I really need to know that my single best holding was off almost 5 percent ...in a single day? Mind you, this is a stock that has appreciated 453.14 percent (see what these sites can do?) since I bought it. How can I hate this stock? Now I do. It's down 4.57 percent, the dog. Sell!
Here are mini-reviews of the five sites, ranked on the basis of how much I liked them and how easy I found them to use.
A drum roll sounds. A bell dings. SmartMoney.com's desktop stock watcher has just updated the prices of all my stocks and called attention to itself. With a mouse click I can expand it and see that -- at least on Monday and Tuesday, when the Dow had a case of the vapors -- just about everything I own is down.
Despite the bad news, I find myself liking the alert, which to my mind is one of the niftiest features on one of the best sites of its kind. Both the abbreviated desktop display and the regular, full-screen view let you easily sort your portfolio by criteria such as biggest percentage gain (or loss), biggest dollar change, etc. Despite occasional display glitches, this gave me my favorite overall view of my stocks.
Go wild -- the Quicken site will let you track up to 50 portfolios with as many as 100 stocks or mutual funds in each (it claims to be able to handle bonds, but I couldn't make it work). Keep what you actually own in one portfolio and use others to watch stocks or funds you might buy, used to own, etc., all of them automatically tracked, updated and analyzed for you. Most sites let you have more than one portfolio, but Quicken is unusually generous.
The best stuff here, though, is the analysis. Want to see how your stock fares against similar companies or how many analysts rate it a buy, hold or sell? Just click. Charts show how a stock has done over any period -- from since this morning, say, or since five years ago. The site also has a desktop stock tracker similar to, but not quite as razzle-dazzle as, SmartMoney.com's.
This was the only site that made me download software to make it run, but the process was fairly painless, both on the Post's super-fast Internet connection and over my home machine's 56K modem. This was also the only site that got confused when I tried to get into my portfolio from both home and office, but it eventually sorted itself out. A spartan but useful basic display of your portfolio lets you sort on any column, so you can pass the time reordering your holdings by today's biggest loss (or gain), best long-term performance and so on.
The best feature I found here was the individual stock alerts. While Quicken's alert told me only that one of my stocks had been downgraded by an analyst from short-term buy to short-term hold, MSN's told me that the same analyst had also upgraded it from long-term hold to long-term buy. No details beyond that, but there were plenty more news nuggets about that stock and all my others. Minor complaint: Individual stock charts were harder to dig down to than on some other sites.
The Motley Fool
Passionate devotees of this site will not like to hear me say I didn't much care for the portfolio tracker here, but the tracker is not why legions of Fool acolytes make this site one of the most popular financial spots on the Web. They come here (me, too, actually) to read the acres of insightful market commentary that get posted every day and yack back and forth on the highly active message boards.
But while this is a wondrous site for figuring out the market and picking stocks, its portfolio tracker defied my admittedly hurried attempts to wrestle it into a format that I liked. Just about all these sites let you select what data you see (today's gain or loss, lifetime gain or loss, share price, etc., etc.), and most are easily tweaked. I'm sure I could have reorganized this tracker to my taste, but I ran out of patience. On the other hand, this is the only site where frowning red faces tell you your stocks have soured and smiling green faces tell you they've gone up. Kitschy but nice.
This is at once the least and most helpful of portfolio trackers -- least helpful because unlike the others, you cannot instantly rearrange your portfolio to show biggest gainers or losers, largest holdings, and so on, in order, which is extremely helpful the larger your portfolio gets.
Yahoo makes up for that inflexibility somewhat by providing five different portfolio views, the most detailed of which includes an enormous amount of information about each stock: price-earnings ratio, 52-week range, a day's trading range, last price, volume, dividend date, market cap, yield, etc., plus a chart that you can expand from one day to decades. For example, want to see how IBM shares have done since 1962? Just click. Amazing.