HONG KONG RETAIL investors are well on their way to 'anywhere, anytime' trading, thanks to technological advances. Increased flexibility with longer stock exchange hours will serve to fuel the trend. Since the introduction of the Third-Generation Order Matching and Execution System (AMS/3) last October - which allows for real-time settlement - online trading has grown steadily, accounting for almost 60 per cent of July's turnover from brokers offering Internet trading services, according to stock exchange figures. But retail investors have been hurt by the dotcom fallout and the trend is towards high-technology systems coupled with human interaction. 'Hong Kong investors want both personal and technological advances,' says Eugene Law Ka-kin, executive director of Celestial Asia Securities Holdings, which launched Web trading division CASH Online three years ago. 'When online first came around, the novelty element was very important. Investors welcomed innovation and a good trading platform. Now, they also want personal contact.' When Charles Schwab, the world's largest online broker, launched stock trading in Hong Kong in 1997, its experience in the United States had alerted the firm to the need for personal contact with customers. In the past two years, the US operation has moved away from being a 'discount broker' to offering personal financial advice, for which clients are prepared to pay. In Hong Kong, Schwab set up an office as well as a shopfront for clients, with flesh-and-blood staff on hand. Schwab noticed Asian customers demand more than their US counterparts. 'Customers here are very demanding in terms of service, quality, security and the efficiency of the Web site,' said Christina Hui Siu-wing, regional general manager for Charles Schwab. 'Asian customers also really like the hand-holding experience, but at the same time they like the hi-tech. They want efficiency as well as privacy.' In Hong Kong, more than 95 per cent of Schwab trades are done on the Web, compared with 80 per cent in the US. Despite the higher degree of trade automation, local people demand greater levels of human interaction. Busy Hong Kong clients read less than the US customers, according to Schwab, preferring to listen to a broker's advice on the phone or in person, rather than reading an Internet research report. 'The US is hi-tech and hi-touch,' Ms Hui said. 'Here, we are very hi-tech and very hi-touch. 'Asian customers value relationships a lot. If you just provide them with online facilities, they do not have peace of mind. When they have questions, they do not want answers from a machine,' she said. According to Mr Law, clients are still opening new online trading accounts, despite weak market sentiment, helped by faster connections with broadband Internet facilities. At present, online traders account for only 15 per cent of CASH's business. Trading through wireless application protocol (WAP) phones was growing at a 'healthy pace', he said, while use of personal digital assistant channels was still in infancy. Online broker E2Cube said Web trading had not grown as quickly in Hong Kong as in South Korea and the US, but now accounted for an estimated 10 per cent of local trade. Its customers valued speed and efficiency over personal ties, but had become more demanding in a maturing market. About 65 per cent of E2Cube customers used the Web for trading, with phone trades a niche market, a spokesman said. The cost of upgrading hardware is one factor putting the brakes on WAP trading. Many are reluctant to upgrade to a WAP phone in the economic downturn, and ahead of the introduction of third-generation technology. Many small brokers have moved to introduce online divisions, but are hindered by the set-up costs multinational businesses can more easily absorb. Eugene Ka, chief executive of Powerticker.com, says technological advances, such as broadband, have made new systems available to local brokers and banks at a fraction of the cost. His company will launch a business-to-business application next month, an open-platform financial terminal providing artificial intelligence analysis of Standard & Poor's research, live feed from the stock exchange and other financial information. The information is portable, using an Internet connection rather than dedicated lines and terminals used by more expensive systems aimed at a higher-end niche. Many investors huddle around bank and brokerage windows, looking at the live feed of changing share prices. Mr Ka envisions the same people watching screens in comfort - he is in talks with fast-food chains to provide multimedia terminals in their outlets. Powerticker's applications can be coupled with AMS/3 platforms to allow for online trading via many channels. Local bank Wing Lung will be rolling out the new system in its Kowloon branches soon. Local brokers SCTrade and Boom are also Powerticker clients. 'We envision that in the future, financial teletext terminals will be just like oxygen, penetrating everywhere as long as there is access to the Internet,' Mr Ka said. 'Users, investors and brokers will no longer be strapped to their desks and can trade everywhere and anywhere.' Whether Hong Kongers will, indeed, consistently trade at lunch or dinner using portable systems remains to be seen, but phone companies, banks and brokers cannot afford to miss the trend. Eight out of 10 local people own mobile phones, according to the Office of Telecommunications Authority. Ms Hui said: 'Today, if I am in Central and I want personal advice, I will go to the branch. But tomorrow, if I am in a meeting and I want to trade, I'll use the WAP phone. If people want to trade online today, it does not mean they want to trade online tomorrow.'