The line dividing certain retail investors from the professionals is starting to blur at some brokerage firms.
Several discount brokerages are racing to offer the market-obsessed public services that were once the preserve of Wall Street professionals.
E-Trade Group, the Palo Alto, Calif., on-line broker, last week began letting its most active retail investors see Level II Nasdaq real-time quotes on their computers. Level II quotes let investors see all the bid, ask, and match prices being offered by market makers on Nasdaq.
By yearend people who invest through Quick & Reilly and Suretrade Inc., the brokerage units of Fleet Financial Group, Boston, will be able to get free e-mail alerts on up to 10 stocks they track closely.
Next year active retail customers of Fidelity Brokerage, Boston, will be able to trade their accounts remotely using a two-way wireless interactive device.
Both Fidelity and E-Trade's innovations are part of packages of enhanced services rolled out to active traders at both firms in recent weeks.
"E-Trade is throwing down the gauntlet" with the offer of Level II service, said Bill Burnham, an e-commerce analyst at Credit Suisse First Boston in San Francisco.
"That's better than what I have on my desk," he quipped.
The service, called "The Pulse" and available to retail investors who trade more than 75 times a quarter, would let customers see whether they are up against firms like Goldman, Sachs & Co. in bidding for a particular stock, Mr. Burnham said.
"What we're doing is trying to develop a program very specifically designed for the active trader," said Lisa Nash, an E-Trade vice president.
"The number of investors that make more than 75 trades a quarter is a minority," she acknowledged, "but a very powerful minority."
As part of Fidelity's new service package, customers can already have the firm page them with real-time information on particular stocks, said Joseph Ferra, senior vice president.
"The customer is truly in the driver's seat in terms of what information they want to receive," he said.
Mr. Ferra said that the firm is also looking at ways to give retail investors access to initial public offerings using wireless technology.
E-Trade and Waterhouse Investor Services, the New York brokerage unit of Toronto-Dominion Bank, have also moved to let their retail investors get in on the ground floor of initial public offerings-once off-limits to individuals.
These people are individual investors, but they're "pretty sophisticated," said Michael Gazala, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc., Cambridge, Mass. "They spend a lot of time thinking about the trades they're going to make."
But in giving people additional tools, brokerages could be enabling investors to trade excessively, said CS First Boston's Mr. Burnham.
"It's like giving people the keys to a very fast car," he said. Some people will handle it responsibly, "but some will finish off a fifth of whiskey and drive at 100 miles per hour."