Earlier this month, San Francisco-based Wells Fargo Nikko Investment Advisors - through its retirement services unit Wells Fargo 401(k) Masterworks - set up a test site on the multimedia portion of the Internet known as the World Wide Web. The retirement unit will begin trials with five or six corporate plan sponsors in the next few weeks. "We stand ready to deal with our participants in any way they want, and there is a call now for broader Internet access," said David Nadig, managing director of market strategy for Wells Fargo Nikko, the joint venture with Nikko Securities Co. that is being sold to Barclays Bank PLC. Wells Fargo & Co. is seen as a leader in the area of on-line services, and already allows users of Netscape Communications Corp.'s Navigator software to check their account balances, as a first step in a broader electronic banking strategy. Even so, experts estimate that less than 1% of Americans currently utilize home banking services. And some industry observers point out that many of the features on Wells' 401(k) system, dubbed Automated Net Answerline, have been available through automated telephone response systems for years. "What it really brings to Wells is marquee value," said A. Stewart Rose, a Boston-based consultant. "It's one of those offers that says more about who they are, and in this case it sends the message that (Wells) offers leading edge technology." However, Wells Fargo & Co. won't be holding onto this service for much longer. Wells Fargo Nikko Investment Advisors, along with the 401(k) MasterWorks unit, will be acquired by Barclays as part of a deal announced in June. The deal is expected to close by yearend, but Barclays officials announced that the 401(k) unit will continue to operate as usual under the name BZW MasterWorks. In the meantime, Wells is offering companies a customized 401(k) retirement plan and, if they so choose, Internet access for participating employees. The fee for setting up a site is $5,000. Plan participants will be able to look at account balances, change how much they contribute to the plan, and choose what mutual funds to invest in. Individuals will also be able to view graphs plotting a fund's performance or growth, and see current portfolio holdings. In addition, employees can download a summary of their 401(k) plan features, descriptions of mutual funds, and articles about investing. All Internet sites can be accessed anywhere in the world through a personal computer, as long as it has the appropriate software and a link to an Internet service provider. However, individuals wanting to access their Wells 401(k) accounts must tell the bank which Internet provider they will use - effectively limiting access to a handful of sites such as a home or office. Anthony P. Pascale, communications strategist for Wells Fargo Nikko, defends the money manager's decision to register Internet providers, saying that security concerns call for a measure of caution. "Security is on the forefront of our minds, but we will not go through with anything that becomes too inconvenient for participants," he said."
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