By day he is "Dr. D.," a St. Louis internist. By night he is "Tom D" or "Barron Bull," a self-made stock analyst whose astute projections have earned him a following on popular message boards.
Until now, he has made no money on the research and instincts that have plumped his own portfolio into the six digits. But those days are changing fast. The savvy founder of eToys, Bill Gross, is launching an Internet company today that compiles and ranks stock picks, company reports and other market advice from "Tom D" and thousands of other armchair analysts, who stand to be rewarded for their talented amateur voices among the cacophony of unbridled Internet chat rooms.
Backed by Silicon start-up king Kleiner Perkins, iExchange is the latest twist to the nation's growing do-it-yourself investment boom. It represents a radical shift in the way stock information and advice is dispersed to the public. And it could serve as a model for disseminating other types of information.
"People have opinions about everything, whether it's stocks or the digital camera to die for," said Blaine Mathieu, an analyst at DataQuest. "If this model works, it can be applied to a lot of different areas."
The site launches with about 3,000 analysts, who were culled through a broad contest that tapped friends and family of the founders. It ranks them according to the accuracy of their stock projections since July. The computer periodically recalculates and automatically shuffles people around. The system will become more reliable as the analysts develop a longer track record.
The analysts post their projections and a small report about the company. Now, most of the reports are free. But, eventually, the analysts will start charging money -- from $1 on up, with iExchange getting half the revenue. Analysts are not paid for merely appearing on the site.
Once the territory of big Wall Street analysts, news and projections have become the domain of dozens of newsletters and thousands of individual investors who rage through the night about what they think -- or want you to think -- about the country's publicly traded companies.
"This is the first stab at disintermediating Wall Street research analysts," said Jim Laird, who researches online financial services for the Yankee Group. "We've seen it happen with brokers, and then traders. This is the model that takes a shot at the analyst community."
Depending on who's counting, Wall Street institutions employ 30,000 to 50,000 analysts who use expensive services, fast computers, press conferences and one-on-ones with chief executives to create snazzy reports that sell for a bundle. They also pool their projections.
Stock prices can ride up and down on this information. Now there are millions of new voices that want to be heard. What will happen when they're given a legitimate platform, when their track records surge, and they develop a following, start writing books, publishing reports?
"Anyone, regardless of their background and investing experience, can become an analyst at iExchange," boasts a company fact sheet.
Passionate investors who presume the role of renegade analyst have been throwing their weight around the Internet for a while. They have an attitude, motives -- and a language all their own.
Take the formal prose of U.S. Bancorp's Andrew M. Schroepfer, considered a traditional Wall Street analyst, in a report on Qwest Communications International Inc.: "We continue to be impressed as the swiftness and effectiveness of Qwest's actions on numerous strategic fronts including its acquisition plans, international expansion, and innovative marketing strategies of existing services."
Then go online for advice. WIZGURU, on a Yahoo message board, says: "U.S. West and Qwest STRONG SELLS! Get out now!!" SUGARDADDY doesn't like it. He writes back: "Smoke some more crack!"
The banter has gotten so loud that closely monitored sites such as Silicon Investor, designated for more polite and educated stock banter, are getting overwhelmed with indecipherable advice.
"Should people be listening to anything they hear online? Absolutely not," said John Reed Stark, chief of Internet enforcement at the Securities and Exchange Commission.
That was the opinion of David Eisner, a Wall Street veteran who spent the last five years at Jefferies & Co., a Los Angeles-based investment firm. "Chat rooms are disorienting," he said in an interview. "There are kernels of brilliance. But for the most part, you have no idea who you're talking to or where they're coming from."
There had to be a business idea here, he thought. So, he began talking to Bill Gross, a Wall Street veteran and entrepreneur whose Idealab had created GoTo.com and eToys.
They banged out a model that would screen out those kernels of brilliance. By ranking individuals according to a track record, they would run a humongous list, broken down by companies and categories, putting the best performers at the top.
"This is everyman's place," Eisner said, scrolling through the new system. "You can go home, get into your pajamas and start making recommendations."
Ken Clemmer, a technology analyst at Forrester Research, said the system will fill a missing link in online trading: cheap, reliable financial advice. "Advice from knowledgeable others is something we all need," he said. "It's an element missing from online trading now."
Will people spend money on these reports? "They're spending so much now on financial newsletters that it is very likely that they will buy these," said Michael Lipper, a prominent New York fund analyst who helped form iExchange.
Mark Hulbert, who has an Alexandria newsletter that tracks financial newsletters, estimates that there are 400 to 500 of them -- at an average price of $150 a year. But with the advent of the Internet, he said, "it's very hard to keep track."
Tom D (his handle on iExchange), who likes his anonymity as much as he likes investing, said he spent more than $1,000 this year on newsletters that gave him investment advice. He has been investing 10 years, and has been a frequent contributor to chat rooms at Silicon Investor (as Barron Bull). He said he hopes not only to sell his information online, but also to use the site to pick the brains of fellow individual investors.
Boosting him near the top of the list was a prediction that Internet Capital Group Inc., which went public two months ago at $15 a share, would rise to $55 at the end of its quiet period. It hit $53 -- and has since soared to $100.
There is no similar rating service for Wall Street analysts, and many have come under fire for wildly missed projections. On Wall Street, "people are often left wondering," said Laird of the Yankee Group. "Pundits can't beat chimpanzees throwing darts. I'm dying to see how the public does."
"We're encouraging people to use their real names," Eisner said.
So far, that advice is unheeded. At the top of the list is Topannuity, followed by a flood of handles, including I Have No Clue.