With low interest rates on certificates of deposit and other popular investments, more small investors are looking to the stock market.
But stocks can be a turnoff on small transactions because commissions and fees to brokers are annoyingly high. Most brokerages, even discount services, have a minimum commission of about $40.Last week Exxon Corp. acted to duck those fees. It joined about two dozen companies which allow investors to buy and sell their stocks without going through a broker.
The companies hope that by giving a break in the cost of investing, they will win more individual investors.
"Individual shareholders tend to be loyal and stable," Exxon spokesman Bill Smith says. "They're investors that we value."
About 600,000 of Exxon's 1 million investors are individuals.
The company's plan is an offshoot of its dividend reinvestment program for employees who own shares. The same transfer agent, First Chicago Trust Co. of New York, will administer it.
Brokerless stock trading at other companies also tended to grow from dividend reinvestment programs for employees or other shareholders, says Charles Carlson, editor of Dow Theory Forecasts newsletter.
"More and more people are looking for ways to dodge the broker in terms of commissions," Carlson says. "People go nuts over companies that permit this."
His recent book, "Buying Stocks Without a Broker," lists about 900 companies that allow investors to increase their shares without brokers by using automatic dividend reinvestment.
Most allow investors to buy more stock without paying a fee. And about 100 of them allow stock purchases at a discount of 3 percent to 5 percent off the market price, Carlson says.
But only about two dozen have taken the extra step Exxon did last week: setting up a way for investors to make the first purchase without a broker.
Some other companies with brokerless programs are Texaco, Mobil, W.R. Grace and Johnson Controls. There are cash limits to these programs, of course. But most small investors are not likely to hit the ceiling.
Procter & Gamble allows investors to buy up to $120,000 worth of its stock a year through its program. Exxon allows up to $8,000 a month.
"When you're paying little or no commission on stock purchases of that magnitude, your commission savings are huge," Carlson says.
But even an investor buying a minimum amount can save. In Exxon's case, the minimum would be about five shares, since the company's plan requires an initial purchase of $250 and the stock has been trading around $55.
"If there's a $50 minimum commission, that's quite a savings," says Sumie Kinoshita, editor at Evergreen Enterprises, a Maryland firm that also publishes a directory of stock reinvestment plans.
Besides avoiding fees, the companies that offer these programs usually offer features like holding investors' certificates, which saves the firm money, and transferring shares to the investors' friends or relatives.
Exxon's new plan even allows its stock to be put in individual retirement accounts, some of which are tax-free.
But if these programs are such a great deal for investors, how come one never hears about them?
"It's not like brokers are going to promote these things, for obvious reasons," Carlson says.