Executives in the investment sales business see new technologies as both friend and foe, judging from their comments here last week at a Fidelity Investments conference.
The forum for clients of Fidelity's institutional brokerage group, which offers clearing, trading, custody, and other services, was marked by talk of innovations ranging from the Internet to voice recognition systems to retinal scans.
The bottom line: Such technologies both threaten the industry and offer it an opportunity.
Voice recognition systems that let investors check their account balances and even make trades will free brokers to concentrate on giving advice and providing other "high-value-added services," said Robert C. Pozen, president of Fidelity Management and Research Co.
But executives for bank and nonbank brokerages agreed that on-line discount brokerages are gobbling up some of their business.
"It's something we've got to live with," one nonbank brokerage executive said with a shrug.
However, fears that the Internet will make brokers irrelevant are overblown, said Richard V. Downen, president of NationsBanc Investments Inc. in Charlotte, N.C.
"Twenty years ago, people said bank branches would be obsolete by the end of the century," he said. "ATMs haven't made tellers obsolete; they supplement the tellers."
The Internet will supplement brokers and the personalized advice and guidance they offer, Mr. Downen said.
As for those retinal scans, Fidelity is developing the technology to confirm investors' identities for on-line trading.
In a gee-whiz video demonstration shown at the forum, an investor plays her phone messages back through a voice command as she unpacks her groceries.
Hearing a tip from her investment adviser, she executes a trade on-line using voice commands - after identifying herself with a retinal scan.
Those who are squeamish about putting their eyeballs up against a scanning gadget need not worry; Fidelity's retinal scanner is expected to be able to make sure that you are who you say you are from a comfortable three feet away.
Mr. Downen's parent banking company is among those wrestling with the question of how to break down the electronic wall between the retail bank and the brokerage.
The company is trying to figure out a way to let customers gain access to their checking and brokerage accounts using the same password. Regulatory concerns about clearly separating the different aspects of the banking company have delayed this approach to one-stop shopping.
"We are trying to create a seamless connection between the bank and brokerage side and make it clear to the customers that they are going to the other side," Mr. Downen said.