The No. 1 question I'm asked these days is "What will the stock market do next year?"
The answer is easy: "I don't know."
In the short term (and I would place the next 12 months in that category), future market movements are a random walk, utterly unknowable from today's perspective -- and don't let anyone tell you otherwise. The long term is another matter. It's a very good bet that stocks will rise at least at the same rate they have risen over the past three-quarters of a century -- which would bring the Dow to about 70,000 by 2025.
The No. 2 question is more sensible: "What are the tools of the trade that help you the most?" This week, I will examine Web sites and research services, next week newsletters and books.
For investors who want to do their own research, this is the Golden Age.
Eight years ago, when I started writing about stocks, The Washington Post provided me with a subscription to Bloomberg Business News, an electronic research service with a mammoth database. Bloomberg was a pleasure. I could get history, news and analysis on practically any stock in the world in a few seconds. I could generate cool charts (in black and white) on my dedicated terminal.
Even though the technology seems outdated today (the interface was clunky, and I had to learn complicated codes), it was all new and dazzling at the time. But expensive. A terminal, I was told, cost about $1,500 a month.
I no longer have a subscription to Bloomberg because, frankly, I don't need it. Nearly all the information I used to extract from the paid service is now available free on the company's Web site (www.bloomberg.com), a gift (and promotional tool) offered by Michael Bloomberg, even before he became mayor of New York.
Certainly, the more complex paid version of Bloomberg continues to provide valuable services to professional stock and bond traders and daily financial journalists. But long-term investors are well served by the public site. I'm especially attached to the "Return Analysis" feature. You can find out the average annual return (including dividends) for any specific period you care to define, going back five years.
Since the turn of the millennium, free financial Web sites have improved dramatically. While Bloomberg is good, it's not the best. In my opinion, that honor goes to MSN MoneyCentral (moneycentral.msn.com), not so much for extensive content -- most of the sites offer similar information -- but for clear, accessible design.
Type in the symbol for Coca-Cola Co. (KO), and you get an opening page with the stock's price, trading volume (and, for comparison, the average daily volume), price-to-earnings ratio, dividend, dividend yield, market capitalization and shares outstanding; the four most recent news stories mentioning the company; and a "Stock Scouter" analyst rating from 1 to 10 (Coke, by the way, is rated 9, expected to "significantly outperform the market" at lower-than-average risk).
But I am more interested in numbers than opinions, so I next click on MoneyCentral's "Financial Results." There's another clean, easy-to-read page showing the highlights, then further pages that give five years of detailed statements of the firm's income, cash flow and balance sheet -- plus a 10-year summary. In addition, you can go into depth in nearly any category. For example, MoneyCentral has more than 100 news stories on Coca-Cola, in chronological order, price charts going back 10 years, Wall Street analyst ratings (for what they're worth), earnings estimates, records of trading by insiders (director Herbert A. Allen sold 5,600 shares on Sept. 23), and easy access to Securities and Exchange Commission filings.
The site also has a superb stock screener. I used it to find the top 25 large-cap stocks with these characteristics: high dividend yield, low P/E ratio, low debt, high revenue growth and high "relative strength" (that is, powerful upward price movement). The dream stocks that MoneyCentral churned out included Eni (E), the Italian-based energy company; Exelon (EXC), a Philadelphia and Chicago electric utility; Washington Mutual (WM), the nation's top thrift; Nissan Motor (NSANY), the Japanese automaker; BASF (BF), a Germany-based chemical company; and WellPoint Health Networks (WLP), a managed health care firm.
My second-favorite free financial site is Yahoo Finance (biz.yahoo.com), which has especially good one-page stock write-ups under "Profiles," each with a spiffy synopsis of the company's business and a layout of all the essential numbers. Another favorite Yahoo feature is detailed historical price data. You can find out the high and low for any stock on any day, adjusted for splits that have occurred in the meantime.
Just for fun in this holiday season, I looked up what happened to Mattel (MAT) stock on Oct. 19, 1987, the worst single-day crash in U.S. history: It dropped from $11.75 to $9.25, a decline of 21 percent (the Dow that day fell 23 percent).
In third place is CBS Marketwatch.com (cbs.marketwatch.com), which I read for its business and investment analysis. It has more original content than Yahoo, but to get it, you're required to register by name. The site will send you special e-mail newsletters of your choosing on subjects such as real estate and taxes.
America Online recently revamped its Personal Finance channel, making it far more user-friendly. Once hard to navigate, the AOL stock section is now a close fourth among free sites -- a pleasure to use and easy to access when you're getting your AOL e-mail. AOL, like every other financial site, also has a feature that lets you track your own portfolio. It's odd for a site owned by the world's largest media company, but one of AOL's drawbacks is a lack of timely business news.
With a snappier layout than before, SmartMoney.com has also become more user-friendly, but frustrations remain. The site has fine features, including the commentary of James B. Stewart and the "Map of the Market," which tells you where stocks stand at any minute through an ingenious color graphic, but, in a field of burgeoning free material, SmartMoney charges between $59 and $347 a year (depending on which services you choose) for anything more than the basics. Click on an intriguing front-page story such as "How to Play the January Effect," about the tendency of small-caps to rise at the start of the year, and you're taken to a sign-in page for the paid service.
Perhaps because recent corporate scandals have emphasized investors' desire for transparency, individual companies are enhancing the data they put on their own Web sites (usually under the rubric "Investor Relations"). When I am researching a company, I always go to the financial statements on its Web site, the most up-to-date source for the information.
A few firms have made major breakthroughs, among them Baker Hughes International (BHI), an oil-service company, which Standard & Poor's recently ranked one of the top three firms out of 1,500 for communicating its finances -- the others are Bausch & Lomb (BOL) and Progress Energy (PGN). The Baker Hughes site (www.bakerhughes.com) offers investors far more detail than just earnings and assets. It publishes "rig counts" -- the number of drilling rigs in operation -- and, thanks to new software from the McLean firm Enumerate, the company displays all of its information (financial and nonfinancial) in an accessible format.
The best mutual fund site, by far, is Morningstar (www.morningstar.com), the Chicago-based research firm. Like SmartMoney, the site's a hybrid. The free features give you good performance data on thousands of funds, plus news and opinion columns, but, like more than 100,000 other subscribers, I happily pay $109 a year extra to get the research firm's deeper analysis, including brilliant one-page summaries in PDF format. Morningstar also covers stocks, but I prefer it for funds.
Edgar, the online database of the Securities and Exchange Commission (www.sec.gov), makes corporate filings easily available to investors. Not many years ago, I remember ordering 10-K (annual report) forms from a Bethesda research firm at $25 each and having them sent by messenger to the office for another $20. Now, 10-Ks are keystrokes away, and free. The SEC site is loaded with consumer-oriented features, including a complaint center and a tool that lets you calculate the true cost of buying a mutual fund.
My research associate, Sharon Utz, is fond of the Lipper research site (www.lipperweb.com), whose free features include a daily analysis of mutual funds by type, so you can compare the ones you own to their peers. (Be warned, however, that the site needs a serious redesign.) Investment firms such as Charles Schwab (www.schwab.com) and Foliofn (www.foliofn.com) provide clients with substantial data on individual stocks and funds. For parsimonious investors -- the best kind -- here are three sites with low-cost ways to invest, plus research: www.buyandhold.com, www.sharebuilder.com and www.equiserve.com (for direct purchases).
When I am doing a piece on a special aspect of investing, I get ideas and information at a feature called "Best of the Web," on the imaginative Forbes Web site (www.forbes.com). You can find, for example, reviews of 18 separate Web sites geared to young investors, including top-rated FleetKids (www.fleetkids.com).
The single most important research tool I use is the Value Line Investment Survey (www.valueline.com), which comes in both an online and a paper version. While I use both, I admit a preference for flipping through the flimsy newsprint edition. Each week a new installment, with about 140 single-page analyses of individual companies from seven or eight industries, arrives, along with an index and a top-notch newsletter, featuring three portfolios, articles on stock screens and write-ups of highlighted stocks. The 1,700 stocks are updated every three months.
The genius of Value Line is its ability to cram so much relevant material onto a single page: 15 years of earnings, dividends and cash flow; balance-sheet data and estimated profit growth; price charts; insider trading data; and a perceptive profile. Ernest Hemingway once said that the Daily Racing Form, with all those numerical details about individual races, was the greatest form of literature -- for its concision. Value Line is in the same class.
Value Line also ranks stocks from 1 to 5 on three measures: timeliness, safety and technical attributes. The record of its 1-rated stocks is legendary. Over the past 20 years, according to independent analysis by the Hulbert Financial Digest, Value Line's picks have returned an annual average of 14.3 percent, compared with 12.6 percent for the market as a whole.
This expertise isn't cheap: $598 a year (in the paper, Web-based and CD-ROM versions). An expanded edition, with 7,600 stocks covered, is $995. The good news is that Value Line is often found in libraries.
So far, I have concentrated on stocks and mutual funds. What about the economy, which, after all, determines the course of share prices?
Again, there's no contest. The best economic site is the Dismal Scientist (www.dismalscientist.com), a service of Economy.com, a West Chester, Pa., research firm. The site provides immediate commentary whenever a new economic report -- on anything from U.S. unemployment claims to French consumer prices -- is issued. There are intelligent essays on such economic and investing topics as venture capital trends and holiday shopping. Perhaps best of all is an extensive archive of economic data, with cogent explanations. A subscription is $159, which I consider a bargain. One drawback: The site is hard to navigate and could use a modernizing makeover.
Finally, in the interest of impartiality, I will forgo a discussion of the Web sites with which I am personally affiliated: washingtonpost.com and Tech Central Station (www.techcentralstation.com). But that doesn't mean you should ignore them.
Next week: the best of the financial newsletters and books.
Correction: In my Dec. 15 column, I stated that Procter & Gamble (PG) owned the Jif peanut butter and Crisco shortening brands. In fact, they were both sold to J.M. Smucker Co. (SJM) in June.
James K. Glassman's e-mail address is email@example.com. He welcomes questions and comments but cannot respond to all.