The Internet and Financial Planning Practices
By Robert H. Yunich, CPA
Using the Internet has become an integral part of nearly everyone’s daily routine. In the business arena, the diversity of available applications is well recognized. Less obvious is the role that the Internet can play in the context of personal financial planning (PFP) practices.
Creating a website can be an effective means to promote a PFP practice and attract new clients. Sufficient thought should be given to the type of content (technical or nontechnical) to be posted. The look and feel of the website should match the public image the company is trying to project, and the site should coordinate with an overall marketing plan. In conjunction with launching a website, practitioners need to address many related issues, such as registration and clearance of domain names, copyrights and trademarks, privacy policies, disclaimers, and professional liability. A significant investment may be required, particularly for new practitioners seeking to build a practice. Despite the availability of software packages and other self-help tools, the practitioner would be prudent to engage an experienced consultant.
The Internet is a vast resource and repository of information, and it is not always easy to find the precise information being sought. Ideally, the website address (commonly referred to as its URL, or universal resource locator) will be known by users seeking a particular site. In most instances, however, users will have to reply upon an Internet search engine. A useful website for comparing search engines and understanding how they work can be found at www.searchenginewatch.com. Popular search engines include: Google (www.google.com), Yahoo (www.yahoo.com), Dogpile (www.dogpile.com), and Lycos (www.lycos.com).
The Internet can also be a valuable resource for financial planners. Online research can be performed in the following areas.
Surveying product offerings. Most financial services providers have one or more websites dedicated to their product offerings. These websites provide product descriptions, comparisons within product families (e.g., term versus whole life insurance), potential applications, and costs. These websites make it easier to assemble a portfolio of product ideas for new or existing clients.
Technical inquiries. The Internet is the perfect vehicle to help answer client questions. Practitioners can reference websites belonging to the IRS, the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance, the AICPA, the NYSSCPA, or the Financial Planning Association. In addition, many information service providers such as CCH and RIA use the Internet as the delivery mechanism to their subscribers.
Investment research. Numerous websites cater to the comparison of specific investment securities and the development of investment plans. CBS MarketWatch (www.cbsmarketwatch.com), Bloomberg (www.bloomberg.com), CNBC/Microsoft (moneycentral.msn.com), and Yahoo Finance (finance.yahoo.com) provide market commentary on either on a free or a paid subscription basis. CBS Market
Watch, Yahoo, SmartMoney (www.smartmoney.com), and Morningstar (www.morningstar.com) also include portfolio trackers. Generally, stock price quotes are provided on a delayed basis, 20 minutes for the New York Stock Exchange and 15 minutes for the NASDAQ. Real-time quotes are available on a paid subscription basis.
Yahoo, SmartMoney, and Morningstar offer free stock and mutual fund screeners,
as well as premium paid subscription services. Bonds Online (www.
bondsonline.com), Investing in Bonds (www.investinginbonds.com), and Bondtrac (www.bondtrac.com) perform the same functions for debt securities.
Money market fund data is covered by sites such as iMoneyNet (www.imoneynet.com). Banx (www.banx.com) and Bankrate (www.bankrate.com) present interest rate data both for investment products (e.g., certificates of deposit) and credit products (e.g., credit cards and loans). In addition, Bankrate has an online tool that can create mortgage amortization tables.
Publishers of business journals (The Investor’s Daily, The Wall Street Journal, BusinessWeek, and Barron’s), newsletters, and investment research companies (e.g., Value Line) generally offer online research tools, some of which are free.
Calculators. Service providers offer a vast array of online calculators for many different purposes. One such example entails charitable gifts. Prospective donors interested in creating a charitable gift annuity or other charitable giving vehicle would find a site like GiftLaw (www.giftlaw.com) helpful in reviewing different giving scenarios.
Over the past several years, as technology has addressed security concerns, online access to financial accounts has expanded dramatically. Account access permits viewing account information and executing transactions online. Many investors appreciate this kind of convenience, although some individuals remain skeptical of the technology.
The Internet and related technologies present many opportunities to simplify client account administration. A significant potential pitfall centers on a prohibition in most providers’ online service agreements against sharing passwords; in some cases, doing so can negate the service provider’s liability. In addition, issues may also occur with respect to exercising due care and diligence and discharging fiduciary duty.
Many service providers encourage financial planners to initiate and process transactions online, as well as perform other client-related tasks by providing restricted access areas on their websites for use by investment advisors, financial planning professionals, and agents. For example, insurance companies offer the capability to obtain quotes and apply for new policies.
The Internet will undoubtedly continue to present new opportunities for all kinds of businesses. Financial planners must be prepared to utilize all available tools.
The CPA Journal is broadly recognized as an outstanding, technical-refereed publication aimed at public practitioners, management, educators, and other accounting professionals. It is edited by CPAs for CPAs. Our goal is to provide CPAs and other accounting professionals with the information and news to enable them to be successful accountants, managers, and executives in today's practice environments.
Visit the new cpajournal.com.