Teenagers in love (with money): Some kids go swimming, others prefer to play the stock market. Amon Cohen visits a camp for trainee tycoons in Florida

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IT IS 95 degrees in Palm Beach. Most sane teenagers are in pools or the Atlantic. But one small group of 11- to 15-year-olds in Nikes, T-shirts and baseball caps is sitting in a hotel conference room studying the Wall Street Journal, poring over one of those headlines that defy syntactical gravity: 'Running Strong - At Rebounding Ford, Picking a Chairman Is Next Big Challenge - 'Car Guy' Trotman Appears To Be Currently Leading Gilmour, a Finance Man'.

They look up from their newspapers at a dark-suited supervisor. He asks: 'Is it good that Ford is putting up its prices?' The teens are not sure. Could be good. Could be bad. Could be time for a swim.

'Yeah, it's good,' the supervisor replies. 'If they put up their prices, then profits go up and Ford can pay bigger dividends.'

This wisdom is being imparted at The Breakers, one of the most exclusive hotels in the United States's most exclusive holiday resort, where the eighth annual Money Management Camp, a week-long course, is being run by Gruntal and Co, a New York stockbroking firm.

For a fee of dollars 625 (pounds 325, accommodation extra), the campers enjoy afternoon activities such as golf, volleyball and ice-cream sundae parties; the morning schedule has such topics for consideration as 'Ethics, Bonds, Mutual Funds', 'Understanding Risks and Emotions' and 'The Crash of '87'. The children learn to tell their bulls from their bears, and how to mine gold from the rich seams of the WSJ share listings.

The course is taught by Terry Upton, Gruntal Palm Beach's vice president and investments manager. Mr Upton, balding, sun-tanned and wearing a monogrammed shirt, admits to having been a pony-tailed socialist 20 years ago. Now he wears sober suits and is 'a recognised authority on the subject of tax-exempt investments'.

He is a good teacher. He does not patronise his pupils but whisks them through the jargon and mechanics of stock investment, answering questions clearly and firing off many himself.

One or two pupils stifle yawns, possibly saving their energy for the ping-pong tournament later in the day, but most seem to be fascinated by the complexities of risk-reward analysis. As Mr Upton recites a litany of investors' maxims - 'don't buy a company you don't understand', 'compound whenever you can afford to' - the kids scribble them down.

'Know what a zero coupon bond is?' Several do. 'What is a mutual fund?' A reply is mumbled from a corner of the room and Mr Upton repeats it. 'That's right. It's when someone does the investment for you.'

He has less luck with the next question: 'Anyone remember who Warren E Buffett is? He's the second wealthiest man in the US and the premium investor.'

To drive the point home, he produces a cutting from a journal called Investment News and Research. Entitled 'The Oracle of Omaha', it profiles a true role model. 'If you had given Mr Buffett dollars 10,000 to play with in 1956,' the article says, 'you would now have over dollars 30m to play with. He doesn't trade insider tips with other tycoons; he just sits in his small office in Nebraska and ignores market swings and economic cycles.'

It would be nice to report that Mr Upton's pupils - 11 boys and four girls - are stereotypical spoilt American brats, but this is not the case. Confident, yes; acquisitive, yes; but almost all are friendly and modest.

The keenest tycoon among them is Gerard Di Santo II, from Rhode Island. Hugely affable, still carrying puppy fat at 13, he knows he is going to make a lot of money. Gerard already manages an imaginary portfolio in an investment game run by schools in his home state and helps his father, Gerard Di Santo I, with his property business.

'This is fun,' he says. 'It's good to learn about investment at a young age. I'm not bothered about being on the beach.'

Keen as he is, the young investor does not intend to make the markets his main career: 'I see it more as a hobby.'

Gerard pere approves. 'The child is the father of the man. He likes business. I don't know if it is lust for money but he pitches in all the time at work. Every American should look at the stock market. That is where their money comes from. The camp won't make children greedy. People are born to do more good than harm, and that carries into the stock market.'

Also on the course is Christine McCann, 12, whose father, another Gerard, is assistant director of food and beverage at The Breakers. Christine, a diminutive girl with olive skin and dark hair in a pony-tail, does not look old enough to be worrying about boys, let alone fluctuations in Treasury bill prices.

She admits that 'money is not one of my concerns right now' - her hobbies are 'swimming, going to the beach, playing with friends and going to the mall'.

Nevertheless, she already has serious plans, including an ambition to be a marine biologist, and her father reports that since the course started she has spent a couple of hours each day in his office, going over the WSJ.

Christine's seven-year-old sister is waiting enthusiastically for her chance to attend the camp, says Mr McCann. He does not believe that learning about investment is depriving her of her childhood. 'Christine is a cheerleader,' he says. 'She does baby-sitting. She's an all-round American girl.'

The occupations of the pupils' fathers vary from architect to hair stylist, but nearly all of them are self-made men.

Among them is Brad Culverhouse - father of John, 11, and uncle of Nicholas Ulmer, 12 - whose Mississippi drawl is endlessly mimicked by the campers. Mr Culverhouse, from northern Florida, is an attorney, citrus fruit grower and cattle farmer. He earns dollars 700,000 (pounds 365,000) a year, yet he is a self-confessed 'liberal' Democrat - which in the US is almost tantamount to membership of Militant. He sees no contradiction in sending his son to the camp - however liberal he is socially, he still believes in the power of investment.

'I believe in the trickle-down and the trickle-up theory,' he says, explaining this as the idea that if the poor become richer, they can spend more money to make the rich richer (and safer) as well.

On the last day of the camp, stretch limos convey Christine, Gerard Di Santo II, John, Nicholas and the others the few hundred yards to the Gruntal office. No one would dream of asking them to go on foot. Nobody walks in Palm Beach.

The purpose of the visit is for the children to invest dollars 100 each, included in the camp fee, in the stocks of their choice. Most of the children invest their 'play money' in familiar names: Christine, for instance, opts for the Blockbuster video chain and Wendy's, a fast food restaurant. Others go for Disney, Nike and Coca-Cola.

But not Gerard Di Santo II. He has brought dollars 1,000 in cash and is deliberating between two computer disc manufacturers he has researched, Western Digital and AMD. After consulting the Gruntal computer with one of the brokers on hand for the occasion, he settles on Western Digital as the better bet.

As Gerard departs, the broker comments: 'That's a smart kid. He knew exactly why he wanted to buy that stock.'

Gerard also wins the prize at the graduation banquet on the last night - a fluorescent calculator, for the most accurate prediction on Monday of what level the Dow Jones Industrial Average would close at on Friday.

Presenting the award, Mr Upton asks another of his rhetorical questions. 'Is it bad to be a capitalist? No] It is if you gamble, but if you give some of your money to the poor, then it's OK.'

Mr Upton stresses the need to honour gentlemen's agreements and warns the children off insider trading. But wider moral dilemmas, such as whether to invest in companies tearing up the rainforests or running mines in South Africa, are not on the agenda.

'If we are accused of being capitalists, that's fine because that is what we are. We are here to build wealth. There is nothing wrong with making money.'

Gerard Di Santo II and his fellow campers would agree with that.

(Photographs omitted)

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