Playing the trading game

November 7, 1997

NEW YORK financial markets have been open for just ten minutes, but already heads are bent over monitors where colour-coded financial information from Reuters and Dow Jones is continuously updated at high speed.

Oblivious to the comforts of their upholstered swivel chairs and the luxury of their mahogany-appointed desks, solemn traders have their eyes glued to the world's stock, bond, foreign exchange, commodity and debt markets.

Most look up only long enough to check the Trans-Lux ticker tape displays of currency, gold, treasury and crude oil rates or live financial news analysis and commentary on the large-screen televisions, or to telephone for research information on sophisticated British Telecom customised handsets.

But this high-pressure trading room is not on Wall Street and its occupants are wearing baseball caps and jeans, not suits and ties. The gleaming new multimillion-dollar glass-walled chamber is used to teach finance and accounting majors at Bentley College,outside Boston.

Jahangir Sultan, an associate professor of finance and director of the trading room, likens the idea to teaching medicine by requiring students to examine actual biological specimens, not just diagrams. "We're just sparing the blood and gore," Mr Sultan said. "We're dissecting financial frogs."

Five American universities that specialise in business now have opened trading rooms like this, where students can put finance theory into practice and apply their classroom knowledge to real-time markets with mock trades and portfolios. They include the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Texas and the Illinois Institute of Technology.

"We'll have such an advantage over everybody else when we come out," said Josh Treat, a third-year Bentley finance major. "They'll learn about this from books, where we are actually doing it."

That morning, his class outsmarted Mr Sultan when he tried to corner the market in two securities by making an offer for industry stocks below their intrinsic value. No one would sell.

The students follow currency fluctuations and the share activity of AT&T, General Electric, Coca Cola, IBM, Pepsico, Microsoft, Intel, Motorola and other major corporations on New York and international financial markets using top-of-the-line software. Clocks on the wall display the time in Tokyo, Singapore, London, New York and Sydney. Analysts' reports covering global debt markets, foreign exchange, capital markets and emerging economies in Latin America, Europe and Asia are available continuously.

Graduate finance student Malti Thadano worked for the investment firm Smith Barney during the summer. "Even there I didn't get my hands on equipment like this."

The markets are real, but the dealing is faked, as only licensed brokers can trade on the stock exchanges. The telephones connect not with the outside world, but with other students who serve as analysts and researchers.

"We're not teaching them how to be traders. We're just telling them how to take information and make good decisions," Mr Sultan said. "And it's not because we want them all to be finance majors, but because in their lives they will all have to manage money."

All first-year students at Bentley beginning this autumn have to complete a semester-long portfolio tracking project, using the trading room to create, follow and analyse a portfolio.

Before they start, Mr Sultan said, some do not know the difference between common stock and livestock. Now many stop by in their free time to follow the markets.

Bentley also plans to use the trading room to offer corporate training seminars for analysts, financial managers and brokers.

It was the private sector that made the state-of-the-art chamber possible for Bentley, where 400 of the 3,100 undergraduates are pursuing finance degrees. More than $3 million worth of equipment and services were contributed by British Telecom, Dow Jones Telerate, Reuters and other companies.

Professors, too, have had to update their knowledge. "We are actually forcing our teachers to become more in tune with the markets," Mr Sultan said.

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