Mary Briggs and Ann Wengert built their reputation in the commercial real estate investment market by brokering deals for the nation's largest institutional clients. So when the pair decided to offer their services to smaller-cap investors, they expected to find a ready market.
Instead they found a market that was fragmented, underdeveloped, and localized.
"We couldn't find a way to connect smaller capital investors with real estate-backed private equities," Ms. Wengert said. "We wanted to find the right platform to provide them with information, but when it came to bringing institutional products to a broader spectrum of high-net-worth individuals, every format seemed inefficient."
When James P. Pritchard left Smith Barney in 1986 to start his own consulting firm, he found out quickly that information was expensive.
"To run a small money management business, I was paying $2,000 a month just to research quote services," Mr. Pritchard said. "Something had to change."
Gregory Barrett found that a lot of his high-net-worth clients, already invested in stocks and bonds, wanted alternatives in their investment lives. "In our industry, useful information that goes beyond press releases is difficult to find," he said.
Whether they are providing advice, studying hedge funds, or ranking real estate investments, one thing is certain about the next generation of financial intermediaries: They have found a home on the Internet.
For Ms. Briggs and Ms. Wengert, as well as Mr. Pritchard and Mr. Barrett, the ability to provide lots of information to a broader base of potential clients was a click away.
"The answer was online," said Ms. Briggs, who co-founded PropertyCapital.com, which connects high-net-worth investors with real estate-backed equities.
"The Internet is the equalizer," said Mr. Pritchard, who has six investor-advice Web sites.
"We can offer it all on one site," said Mr. Barrett, executive vice president of Hedgeworld.com.
Survey results published in September by the New York investment research firm Jupiter Research said that about two dozen such financial and wealth management infomediaries are online. The sites generally offer lower prices than offline providers for trading and information access, along with financial planning tools; any investor equipped with a modem can get material from the infomediaries - material once reserved for the ultra-wealthy.
"Whether you're a CFO or a mom-and-pop down the street with a few thousand dollars to invest, the Internet allows you to get expert information for free," said Mr. Pritchard, chief executive officer of Fundsearch.net, Isharesadvisor.com, Buildyourown401k.com, Myportfolioplanner.com, Cfoinvestmentadvisor.com, and Publicplanadvisor.com.
Most Web sites offer information but not advice. Mr. Pritchard's sites, however, make index fund recommendations to investors through tools that assess their objectives and risk tolerance.
"It's all about providing the right information," Mr. Pritchard said. "If you design the right questionnaire, then you are providing the same information you'd provide in a face-to-face encounter. You are giving advice based on their answers." He acknowledges that right now his sites are "rather vanilla."
At PropertyCapital.com, Ms. Wengert and Ms. Briggs developed a service that rates real estate offerings by evaluating the owner's background and market information and the property's physical attributes and legal and capital structure.
Ms. Wengert said the Investment Quality Rating System "is like a wine-tasting for real estate property. By using the value-added tools, high-net-worth investors can determine what the best investment is for them."
Ms. Briggs, noting that PropertyCapital.com sets a minimum investment of $25,000, said: "We aren't trying to put intermediaries out of business here. "We want to work with and through the financial managers to help buyers find sellers. The Internet site brings everyone together."
Hedgeworld.com, which Mr. Barrett operates out of Rye, N.Y., has free access to a database of 1,600 institutional money managers and 6,000 investment products.
"We want to be an online community for hedge fund communication," he said. "In our industry, it has traditionally been very difficult to get information. We want to change that."
Some detractors say the infomediaries are not delivering what they promise.
"There are a lot of ambitious goals here," said Lee Kowarski, a consultant with Kasina LLC, a New York e-business management and consulting firm. "People have the best intentions to provide a one-stop shop online with information and trading capabilities and value-added service, but nothing has been implemented successfully yet."
Russ Prince, a high-net-worth-market analyst with Prince & Associates of Shelton, Conn., said it is impossible for these Web sites to provide legitimate advice .
They're "great for basic things," he said. "If you want to buy a stock, E-Trade is great for execution, but if you provide advice and something goes wrong, you will get sued."
For this reason, most sites have stayed away from offering advice and emphasized value-added information, he said.
Still, Mr. Kowarski said, sites like Hedgeworld.com, PropertyCapital.com, and Mr. Pritchard's are useful.
Their "content and functionality are fairly enhanced," he said. "It's a step in the right direction."
Bankers are watching the sites closely. The skeptics include Maureen Buckley, an executive vice president at Chicago's Harris Bankcorp, the Bank of Montreal subsidiary.
"Anyone and his brother can open a Web site and offer advice or information or anything they want," she said. "That doesn't mean that that individual is as responsible as they should be. Just because the information is available doesn't mean it's accurate."
Mr. Prince said he doesn't see real utility in these sites. Regardless of how accurate the information may be or who is offering it, he doesn't get the ultra-wealthy using them.
"The advice is sophomoric online. Most investing decisions are too complicated," he said, adding that the wealthy are more likely to turn to advisers, because of the research and individualized analysis they can provide.
But the market's growth is continuing: Jupiter Research projects that 13.1 million households will use the Internet for banking transactions by yearend, and that by 2005, 43.5 million households will invest $5 trillion online.
David Ross Palmer, a banking industry consultant with Lobue Associates Inc. in Northbrook, Ill., points to one of the misconceptions about the audience for financial-advice Web sites.
"One of the great myths in the business is that most people between 55 and 60 who have money to invest are not computer-literate, therefore online efforts to attract them are misplaced," he said. "The reality is, many older people in that high-net-worth group are adapting to online services. They appreciate the speed and access it offers."