Michael Ashworth slumped by his computer, weary from another rough day in the stock market. All his favorite picks -- Domino's Pizza Inc., Hershey Co. and Gap Inc. -- were down.
"I'll be honest with you," he confided. "Before all this, I asked my mom to get me stocks for Christmas," but then "I told her not to do it. I asked for a parakeet instead."
Michael, a 13-year-old at Wilmington's Skyline Middle School, is one of 700,000 players in the "Stock Market Game," a scholastic contest in which students from grades four through 12 get a hypothetical $100,000 to invest in stocks, bonds or mutual funds.
The game is run by the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, Wall Street's biggest trade group.
This year's game kicked off in most schools just as the market began a steep slide, which means the "kids are learning a lot," says Maria Suggett, the association's Western-region coordinator for the game. "I think they are having a great time."
That's one perspective. Another view is that this year's iteration of the game isn't doing much to prime the next generation of customers for the association's members.
Rob Wolfe, who is 17 and playing at Spartanburg High School in South Carolina, says that "in the real world" he plans to deposit all his cash in banks. His team has seen a third of its pretend portfolio wiped out.
Some students who played the game last year, when the market was more benign, went on to invest real money. After participating at Wright Elementary School in Malta, Ill., last year, 11-year-old Avery Maxwell invested $500 he had saved up from birthdays and Christmas money into a mutual fund, American Funds' New Perspective Fund. It's down 44.9% so far this year, and Avery won't look at his latest monthly financial statement. "I don't want to open it," he says, adding, "I'd feel, like, sad."
With most contestants in the red this fall, the buzz about teams that are actually managing to post good returns isn't always friendly. In Pennsylvania, a team at Wyomissing High School, an hour west of Philadelphia, went from $100,000 to $220,000 in just a few weeks, rocketing to first place.
Patricia Schoeniger, of EconomicsPennsylvania, a research house that is coordinating the game in the state, says of the teenage traders: "They're short selling, that's what they're doing. I don't like it."
As in the real investing world, short selling in the game is allowed but not uniformly loved. Wyomissing's club adviser, economics teacher Tim Hetrich, applauds his students for finding opportunities in a volatile market. He says his students are "very secretive" about their trading tactics. But he discloses, "They went in big time and shorted Wachovia" Corp., just before the bank's share price fell 82% on Sept. 29. "They made a killing," he says.
Despite all the anxiety, some students say they are learning lessons about the stock market -- though maybe not the intended ones. At Skyline elementary in Delaware, seventh-grader Connor Woodard says that following the ups and downs of the stock market helps him to know whether his parents are losing money, "so you know not to be real greedy." His classmate Katie Adams, who is also 13, is learning that she may not have the stomach for market gyrations. She says she's "not so sure" she'll ever play in the real stock market. Scrunching up her face, she says, "it's like a roller coaster."