Saturday, December 20, 2008

Raising Your Smartphone's Financial IQ

THE MOSTLY DOWNHILL ROLLER-COASTER RIDE stocks have taken in recent months has made many investors anxious to keep closer watch on portfolio performance. Software developers, in partnership with online brokers, have been cranking out applications for years that run on smartphones and other handheld devices, but these apps are getting much more sophisticated and useful. Here we’ll look at an iPhone application that lets you place stock and option trades, and one for BlackBerries that hauls in international data.

We installed the new iStockManager on an iPhone with access to a TD Ameritrade test account. Kim Hillyer, a spokeswoman for the online broker, says that its customers are enthusiastic about the iStockManager. After playing with it, I see why.

It’s available at iTunes stores, and can be downloaded and used for free. Installation is as easy as loading a few podcasts onto an iPhone. The biggest problem: typing in a long password with my fat fingers. Once logged in, I opted to save the password, so that I wouldn’t have to go through that again. However, a second password is required to trade.

The program opens with a quote board; five main areas are displayed at the bottom of the iPhone’s touch screen. Each line displays the ticker symbol and, in smaller type, full name of the stock. The current price is displayed, along with the change from the prior close, and color-coded to show whether it’s risen or fallen in value. The day’s trading range displays above and below the value. Tapping a symbol brings up more info on that stock, including a price chart, Level II quote, recent news, and options chains. There’s also a “Trade Me” button at the top of the screen that opens an order ticket.

Placing an order with iStockManager is very slick and utilizes all the iPhone tricks you love—or hate. Order type (limit, market, stop losses and trailing stops), expiration, special instructions (all or none, fill or kill) and routing (auto, Nasdaq or Arca) can be selected from choice wheels. Once a symbol is entered in the appropriate box, a real-time quote is displayed. You select the order type by tapping on a button (Buy, Sell, Buy to Cover, Sell Short), and when you tap the Quantity field, six buttons appear that let you increase or decrease your order’s size quickly.

My iPhone is first-generation, so when I’m not connected to a wireless network, I have to use the Edge network, which is slower than the 3G network that newer versions can tap in to. The application runs fine on Edge, but quotes seem to stream more slowly.

You can place stock and simple options orders with iStockManager; complex options orders will be possible early in 2009. By the end of this year, iStockManager will have zoomable charts. It’s among the first truly useful smartphone financial applications.

L market data, London-based Blue Systems ( recently launched Blue Mobile, which runs on Java-enabled BlackBerries and Windows Mobile-enabled devices. We tested it on a BlackBerry Curve on the 3G network. Blue Mobile doesn’t permit you to place trades; however, a spokesman says the company is working on that. You set up an account with Blue Systems for data access; it’s independent of any brokerage.

When you bring up Blue Mobile, it opens at a streaming-quote screen. You can access forex quotes, stock quotes from international exchanges, real-time news from Dow Jones Newswires (a sister company of Barron’s) and Xinhua Finance News—plus over-the-counter data for money markets, interest rates, energy, precious metals and weather.

Once started, the system checks for program updates, and downloads them automatically. It’s available in several languages (English, Russian, Chinese, Spanish and Portuguese, with Arabic coming soon); menus and headers change to the language selected.

The initial settings for Blue Mobile bring up a forex chart, but it’s easy to switch to other quote boards such as those for Nasdaq or NYSE stocks. You can set up as many boards as your BlackBerry can hold, and change the layout, too. The menu also lets you look at a quick quote on an individual stock and get additional information about the company.

The quote board is the heart of the system, and drives all other windows. You can switch from “Streaming” data to “Snapshot” mode if your BlackBerry’s monthly plan doesn’t allow unlimited data and you want to keep your mobile bill from ballooning. The program will remember which mode you were using when you logged off, and you can set alerts that work when you’re not actively using the application.

There are several packages, priced on how many exchanges you access. The least expensive—$9.95 a month—provides 15-minute-delayed exchange data and includes three exchanges, plus forex currency pairs, portfolio-manager functions, charts and alerts. For $19.95 a month, plus exchange fees ($1 a month for NYSE or Nasdaq), you get streaming real-time quotes and delayed data from three exchanges. Precious-metal, emerging-market and oil quotes are included. The desktop premium product, which has much more functionality, is $139.95 a month and includes the mobile application.

Published in Barron’s, December 15, 2008

Posted by twcarey on 12/20 at 01:57 PM
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Saturday, December 06, 2008

Online Broker Buffs Its Bond Site

ARE YOU SICK OF THE VOLATILITY AND STOMACH-CHURNING drops in stocks, options and mutual funds? If so, you have a lot of company. As the financial crisis has worn on, yields on less-risky Treasury bills have come down sharply while trading volumes have surged. Although they haven’t shared in the price run-up, high corporate bond yields also are starting to attract attention. To try to win more of this business, at least one online broker is upgrading—and marketing—its fixed-income offerings.

TradeKing ( has expanded the number of certificates of deposit (CDs) and Treasury securities available to clients via its platform. The firm has teamed with Knight BondPoint, a subsidiary of Knight Capital Group (ticker: NITE), to give investors access to a network of more than 200 dealers offering nearly 35,000 fixed-income securities that can be tracked down and traded. For investors seeking CDs, TradeKing keeps an inventory of 250 to 400 new offerings available through 10 dealers each week. The CD and Treasury center sits within the fixed-income section of Trade King’s site.

“Recent market conditions are prompting many investors to seek more conservative investment vehicles,” says Don Montanaro, TradeKing’s CEO. “By broadening our CD and Treasury offerings, and supplementing the search features for all of our fixed-income securities, we make it easier for clients to find the right investment that meets their needs.”

TradeKing’s fixed-income platform has been jazzed up, and now includes interactive charts and graphs and better search capabilities. Traders can search for different bond issues based on their maturity, credit rating, state of issue, industry or yield, and then execute their trade without leaving the search function. This is a welcome enhancement to a site that’s offered lots of bells and whistles for stock and options traders. Unless TradeKing acts as principal, commissions are $4.95 per bond with a $14.95 minimum per transaction. Treasuries and CDs are $24.95 per transaction; that’s more than the $1-per-bond commission levied by Fidelity or the free CD offers at Schwab. When TradeKing acts as a principal, the price of the bond is marked up—or down, if you’re selling—and no explicit commission is charged.

Sticking to its roots, TradeKing also recently added options-based video. Content from The Options News Network’s ONN.TV ( can be found on the TradeKing site via a dedicated link called “Options TV.” Initial programming includes “Mad About Options,” a high-energy roundtable that puts an options spin on Mad Money’s stock picking “lightning round.” (It’s not affiliated with the similarly named CNBC show).

WHAT’S YOUR TQ? OptionsXpress ( in late October launched the Trading Quotient (TQ), an interactive tool allowing investors to assess their investing skills—either on their own or by competing with peers. The interactive test uses game-like functions to provide an aptitude score, and includes word scrambles, true/false questions, chart recognition, and even a little arithmetic. Find it at

“With the launch of Trading Quotient, optionsXpress is continuing its quest to offer innovations in the educational experience of self-directed investors,” says David Fisher, CEO of optionsXpress Holdings. “Today’s turbulent market conditions reinforce how important it is to know not only the basics of trading, but also key economic and financial facts. TQ helps users improve knowledge in both areas in a fun and interactive way,” he says.

TQ is free of charge; registration allows you to access some advanced features such as cumulative scoring, and to create group competitions. Scoring is based in part on how quickly you answer the questions—you lose points if you have to take time out to use your search engine to look for answers. The database is so big, you can take the test many times without seeing the same question twice. Questions range from unscrambling “kotsc” (our answer is stock) to figuring out the name of the trading pattern, say a double top.

OPTIONSHOUSE CUTS COMMISSIONS: The firm cuts commissions Dec. 1, according to CEO George Ruhana. The new fees will be $2.95 per stock for transaction of up to 20,000 shares, a flat fee of $9.95 for options trades, and a flat fee of $14.95 for options spreads with up to four components. Previously the fees were $4.95 per-stock for up to 5,000 shares, and $9.95 per leg on a multi-faceted trade. Given the tools available, especially for options traders, on the Options-House ( Website, this is a good deal.

Strateer, a New York-based financial-information startup, recently launched its first product, Alerts4All ( I took a peek at this service, intended for individual investors, while it was in private beta-test mode. You can check it out free for 30 days, though the data displayed is delayed by 20 minutes, or you can sign up for real-time data for $9 per month.

After logging in, find the stocks you want to watch by typing in the ticker symbol or part of the name. Alerts4All has six alerts pre-configured for the first stock you select (price drops, trailing stop-loss, price gaps up and down, simple moving average cross-over, or a relative-strength indicator 14-day alert, which you can edit to fit your purposes. You can also set up alerts based on chart patterns and a few technical indicators.

When an alert is triggered, such as a 5% drop in your stock from the previous day’s close, you receive an e-mail, or you can subscribe to an RSS feed. You can add other alerts for each stock, and delete the ones you don’t find useful. You’re limited to a total of 400 active alerts at any one time, so if you follow many stocks, you might want to be selective.

You can’t tie your Alerts4All account into an online-brokerage account, so you’ll have to do some manual data entry. If your online brokerage’s alerts function is on the weak side, Alerts4All can give you additional helpful trading data.

“Alerts4all is the first service in a series of other services that we will launch in the future. Our mission is to bring Wall Street tools to Main Street,” says Fabian Siegel, CEO of Strateer.

Published in Barron’s, December 1, 2008. 

Posted by twcarey on 12/06 at 10:24 AM
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