But recently I began testing a truly fascinating Web-based financial analysis tool made by Raleigh, N.C.-based Sageworks. (Plans start at $1,200 a year; consult your local accountant for access to the software.) Sageworks products, among other things, provide real time, financial information on privately held companies.

That's right. Sageworks is basically Google Finance on your non-public competition. It's pretty cool.

What you get

Sageworks does a reasonable job of providing real-time financial analysis on companies that do not issue stock or sell bonds. You can expect to find most of the traditional fiscal ratios and information you would find in any financial analysis package like Yahoo! Finance or the like except for, as I said, private companies.

How does it work? Sageworks provides the tools that accountants and credit officers use to analyze company books and credit applications. You know how you go to your accountant and talk through, say, your debt-to-equity ratio or day's payable ratios or stuff like that? Sageworks software can help your accountant be smarter about that analysis. And since Sageworks provides fiscal analysis software to roughly 40 percent of the top accounting firms, its code manages the analysis of hundreds of thousands of privately held small businesses.

Sageworks then cleverly takes the data that describes this fiscal information -- anonymity is assured since the actual hard numbers stay with the accountant -- and feeds that descriptive material into a clever bit of Web-based software, which generates customized analysis of that data. The result is a fairly accurate, in my tests anyway, fiscal picture of different sectors of the privately held economy.

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