COULD a virtual Wall Street render the New York financial centre obsolete? Within the next 100 years this cannot be flatly ruled out. The world's biggest investment banks, issuers and investment fund managers are increasingly using the World-Wide Web as a means of getting closer to their clients - and none of them want to be left behind. Even as listing prospectuses, merger documents and other legal paperwork become available on the Web, the first signs of an electronic stock exchange are starting to emerge. The traditional way corporate securities activity is conducted - involving underwriters, issuers, lawyers and even new issue subscribers - is gradually becoming a virtual business and it may not be long before financial printers are seeking alternative means of bringing in the cash. 'In the short term books are not going to go away. In the long term they will. I expect within 20 years there will be no need for a printing firm,' said Gary Purnhagen, marketing director of the electronic services department of Bowne & Co, New York's foremost financial printer. Bowne saw the tide changing and moved into electronic document management. 'People will still want paper, but they'll receive it electronically and print it out,' Mr Purnhagen said. Bowne now processes and distributes documents electronically for financial institutions and lawyers in a typeset format. The folder can then be sent to appropriate electronic addresses around the world faster than a courier service. The documents are formatted so that they can be downloaded and printed out to look just like the original printed version would. 'This cuts out layers of intermediaries, reducing costs of printing and courier services so issuers can tap the capital at lower costs,' Mr Purnhagen said. The company also has a localisation group which can access documents and translate the contents into five different languages. This is a US$12 billion a year industry which is growing at up to 30 per cent annually. 'We're doing US$25 million worth of globalisation work for Microsoft, our single biggest client, and we've only been doing localisation work for six months,' Mr Purnhagen said. It is becoming increasingly important for underwriters to provide private placement documents in many languages because if they do not, their competitors will. According to Mr Purnhagen, more people will embrace the electronic platform when they can extract more information that way than from paperwork. For example, the inside cover of a listing prospectus may have full colour photographs of the products made by the company, services, the plant which is being expanded, and maybe the management team. An electronic prospectus may feature an audio-visual clip for a much more meaningful demonstration. You may have a speech from the chairman, or a meet the management team clip. 'An ideal investor, before they make an investment in an issue in a company, certainly wants to read the numbers and look at the balance sheet,' Mr Purnhagen said. 'They want to meet the management, know what their vision is, tour the facilities. The financials now are filed on an EXCEL spread sheet to assist you in analysing it in various scenarios. 'Maybe there's a CD-ROM available to add that rich experience . . . they want to see the products and see how they compare. Right now we're attempting to convey that,' Electronic finance hit New York big time in 1984, when the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) saw how Wall Street was adopting technology to improve efficiency. At that time, the SEC had 10 million pages of original documentation on hand and the rules called for six courtesy copies to save the cost of photocopying. The answer was Edgar - the Electronic Data Gathering Analysis and Retrieval system. Bowne was involved in developing Edgar on which all annual reports, quarterly reports, registration statements, prospectuses and other documents have to be filed. Now, filings made in the United States, through the SEC, are available on the Internet across the world within 20 minutes. Little over 10 years later, the SEC has more than 40,000 registrants. At least one individual is even starting to bring in investment bankers and analysts and is setting up a stock trading facility on the Internet. 'In contrast to the way shares are distributed in traditional public offerings where underwriters sell shares to large institutions and large customers, what they are looking to do here is selling directly over the Web,' Mr Purnhagen said. So far, the SEC has reacted favourably to this development.