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Stock price information is becoming more and more of a commodity. The internet has ensured that. But now, intriguingly, even high-quality analytics are available free online, mostly from companies locked in a battle for web advertising revenues. In the process, they are cutting the cost of being a private investor.

Yahoo has long been a free second-best to an expensive Bloomberg terminal, allowing you to look up 15-20 minutes delayed stock prices and other business information. The site’s latest bells and whistles bring it even closer. Bloomberg, meanwhile, offers some free data and charting on its website, as do other information groups such as Reuters.

Not surprisingly, search-and-everything-else giant Google also has a finance function. Launched this year, it is still in beta, or test, form but offers attractive features, in particular dynamic charts. A slider bar allows you to narrow or widen the period covered. As the cursor moves over the chart, a track ball rolls along the share price line and the corresponding day’s share price is shown, along with volume statistics. That allows the date and price of peaks and troughs to be noted easily. It is all a huge advance on the static charts that came before.

Google’s site does a couple of other clever things that play to its particular strength as the internet search leader. The charts show flags with identifying letters that mark news events with the related stories listed nearby. This idea is full of potential for helping to identify the specific events that moved markets. Google’s system does not yet seem able to pick out only the most important news but this is the kind of thing very sophisticated, very expensive services are only beginning to get right.

Another neat trick is to pull images from the search company’s database so the user sees a picture of, for example, a company’s chief executive as the cursor rolls over his or her name – although there is no mugshot of Rick Wagoner, who runs General Motors.

On the charting front, though, Yahoo has just leap-frogged over Google. Its new dynamic charts are much more sophisticated than its rival’s which, strangely, do not seem to allow for comparative charts of two stocks, or a stock and an index. Yahoo’s charts do allow that and the data range is extensive. For GM, for example, Yahoo can plot the share price back to 1962, while Google only goes back to 2001. You can chart the Dow back to 1928. Another helpful feature prompts you with the names of a company’s main competitors as possible comparisons.

Yahoo’s new charts, also still in beta mode, are being rolled out to selected investors but the company says they will become the default within a few months. In the meantime, anyone can find them (look below).

Yahoo is also promoting a new real-time quotes service, for which it intends to charge. But its new free graphs vie with the sophisticated offering from BigCharts.com, a unit of MarketWatch. And Yahoo has left media-oriented rivals such as AOL, CNN and MSNBC – where corporate financial data look, on casual inspection, like simplified versions of Yahoo’s current site – in the dust.

But for an elegant and startlingly intuitive way to see what is going on in equities it is hard to beat SmartMoney.com’s map of the market. This takes the “heat map” technology becoming more popular in Wall Street dealing rooms and gives it out free on the web, with only a 20-minute delay.

Each stock is shown as a square sized according to its market capitalisation. Its colour changes according to its performance – squares grow brighter red as prices fall, and brighter green as they rise.

As companies are grouped in sectors, the maps mean that trends can be “eye-balled” almost instantaneously – a glowing bright red area for the energy patch while the rest of the map is green, for example, probably signals that the market is reacting to a fall in the oil price.

US stocks still dominate most of these websites. Many give at least index levels for non-US markets and benchmark data on government bonds, currencies and commodities, the broadest in scope probably being Bloomberg. Yahoo also carries some of this information. But it is harder to find good data and charts for other types of assets gratis.

One exception is Oanda.com’s free currency rate graphs and world currency maps – both useful and interesting as long as a corporate network firewall does not get in the way as it does at the Financial Times.

Various exchanges trading a range of products also offer some free information that can be very useful. In recent months, with speculation heaving over the next move of the Federal Reserve, the Fed Funds futures on the Chicago Board of Trade’s site have made particularly interesting reading as they provide a proxy for the market’s assessment of the chances of a rate rise.

Is this welter of free information enough to launch into hedge-fund-style trading strategies? Of course not. But for competent private investors interested in act-ively managing their own stock portfolios, much of the numerical information need-ed to make a decision can now be had free.

Some useful URLs:

http://bigcharts.market watch.com

http://www.bloomberg.com

http://finance.google.com

http://www.oanda.com/channels/products/products.html (see under “decision support”)

http://www.smartmoney.com/marketmap

http://finance.yahoo.com

http://finance.yahoo.com/charts# (new beta charts)

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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