Like their banking challengers, mutual fund companies are rushing to establish themselves on the Internet's World Wide Web - even though a number of technological and regulatory issues remain unresolved.
Those attending the annual operations conference of the National Investment Company Services Association here this week were deluged with information from exhibitors and speakers regarding the Web's prospects of capturing and retaining an ever-rising number of mutual fund investors deluged with information on where to put their money.
Some of nation's biggest mutual fund complexes and distributors, including Fidelity Investments and Charles Schwab & Co., have launched Web home pages enabling investors to download prospectuses, view fund performance data, and even receive account statements on-line.
Now the thousands of smaller fund companies are trying to play catch-up, and like banks, they are finding a thicket of difficulties, including how to keep their fund brokers in the communications loop, and how to address regulatory concerns over the misuse of electronic mail.
"When we first started looking into setting up a presence on the Web last year, we were surprised at how many questions still don't have answers," said Barbara D. Buchner, a senior vice president at Pioneer Services Corp., the shareholder services division of Boston-based Pioneer Mutual Funds.
Mr Buchner, who is also a member of the investment company services group's technology committee, said a big issue for Pioneer, which distributes its funds mainly through brokers and investment advisers, "is how we can keep them up-to-date when we communicate with shareholders on- line." She added that Pioneer has instituted an Internet-based information retrieval service for internal use only, with the hope that it can be eventually expanded for shareholders' use as well.
Another obstacle to mutual funds fully utilizing the Internet is the uncertainty surrounding the use of electronic mail. The Securities and Exchange Commission is expected to publish rules governing investment firms use of electronic media, including the appropriate uses of E-mail.
As result, most mutual fund companies building Web sites are not including E-mail as a way for shareholders to commincate with them. "It's still unclear whether responding to E-mail is form of giving advice," said Chrissy Snyder, vice president of public relations at Denver-based Janus Capital Corp.
Ms. Snyder said her firm is developing a Web site to be introduced later this year. "We're starting with putting up information on just one of our funds on the Internet to see how it is used," she added, noting that that cybersurfers will be able to download and print prospectuses.
Even if the regulatory issues are resolved, some at the conference said, technology constraints on the Internet also need attention.
"What happens if a message is lost, or if the Internet becomes deluged with message traffic during a market drop?" noted Rocco J. Cavalieri, vice president of systems at Fund/Plan Services Inc. in Conshohocken, Pa."We don't have an easy solution for that yet."