On the money

Today I sold my motorcycle. My motorcycle, my conveyance, my noisy joy, my slowly rusting friend.

Two days ago I placed an ad in the Trading Post via the Net. Then a man called: "I think I want it," he said, and you could hear in his voice that he meant it. Motorcycles can do that to you. I said I would bring the motorcycle to his place, not too far away. "And bring your bank details with you, your BSB and account number," he said, "because if I buy it I'll transfer the money directly into your account."

He was waiting for me in his garage, standing with a friend. Great, I thought - this is bound to be one of those friends with engine grease permanently under his fingernails, who strips gearboxes in his sleep, and who understands intimately all the bits on a bike that I can't even name. But not so - the friend duly inspects and gives the thumbs up, and the man with the money is keen. I agree to sell my friend.

I would love to write more about motorcycles, but this is really about Internet banking. Because after the formalities of transferring rego of the bike, the new owner fired up his notebook and logged onto Westpac. He punched in my account details and promptly - no, instantly - transferred the moolah to me. No writing of licence details on the back of cheques in the vain attempt to stop them bouncing. No need to carry great wads of cash that an ATM won't give you in one hit anyway. Instant gratification. I don't remember Trading Post transactions being like this.

Internet (and phone) banking has been around for some time now, and already it's hard to imagine life without it. I signed up for an ING Direct account many months ago when they offered an uncomplicated, fee-free online savings account that paid over 2 per cent above the "high yield" cash management I was using. Similar accounts are available from AMP Bank, St George (dragondirect) and various non-bank institutions. You get online account maintenance, no branches, no queues, no minimum balance, high yield (for effectively at-call funds), no fees, and phone support when needed - from real people even! You still need a garden-variety bank savings account with a branch and ATM network so you can get at your money, but the transfers are a doddle. Is this the future of banking? You can bet your family trust that the banks want it to be, and they won't get any complaint from me.

The millstone around the necks of the institutions moving into Net banking is that mass of people for whom banking means conversing with a human being over a counter. I suspect there is some sort of fiscal snobbery involved here, an attitude that says "I want respect for the very existence of my savings, and that means a warm-blooded creature to count it before my very eyes." These people are being pursued by an almost certainly younger mass who equates the human contact with queues. "Cash is a commodity, so let's move it around with computers and stuff, which is what happens behind the scenes in a bank branch anyway."

Net banking can really be seen as a component of the general trend towards personal funds management - why pay a bank or the archetypal middle-man to manage your assets when you can do it yourself? This approach is, of course, tied to the rise of personal Internet access, riding on the back of deregulation of Australia's banking industry. You can now research the best option for a transaction - whether it's a mortgage, equity trade, a managed fund investment - and then carry out the transaction yourself, all online. Which makes us all increasingly financially savvy.

There is no shortage of letters to the investment whizzes in the newspapers that demonstrate a real knowledge of investment options and thirst to know more.

"Hi, I'm 35 years old, happily married with two gorgeous kids. I earn heaps of money, own my own home, two investment properties, a majority share of a whale-watching business in Noosa, and I'm debt-free. Boy it feels good! Anyhow, what is your opinion on margin lending? Is it a better option than wholesale share trusts? And should I for spring for the latest BMW or stick with the Jag?"

I love reading those sorts of letters, partly for the voyeurism and partly for the feverish thinking behind the questions, fuelled by all the investment opportunities rendered by the Internet. OK, mainly for the voyeurism.

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MARK STAFFORD

PC World
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