Share girls who beat the stock market get a taste of Wall Street

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The Independent Online

As the Financial Services Authority prepares to call a "summit meeting" on financial education, one group of young people better prepared than most are the members of the St George's School For Girls Investment Club in Edinburgh.

They recently returned from an all-expenses-paid trip to New York as their prize for winning the Student Portfolio Challenge, sponsored by Proshare, a City-based charity that providesfinancial education to schools. The competition was invaluable experience for campus life as they head to university and a new set of financial challenges this autumn.

"I've got it all sorted out already," says Jennifer Anderson, a club member. "I have a deposit account for direct debits and other regular expenses, and anything left over will be saved in a cash ISA so I can earn a better rate of interest."

The club has spent the past year learning the fundamentals of finance and investing in stocks. They invested a notional £100,000 in a fantasy portfolio of large and medium-size shares, monitoring their returns throughout the year. Their portfolio rose 4 per cent during the judging period, from October to March, while the FTSE All Share index was falling 11 per cent. Had the competition included the recent market surge, the girls would have booked an impressive 11 per cent profit, against the FTSE All Share's 8 per cent gain.

The girls scoured the market for companies with strong, recognisable brands that were undervalued relative to their competitors, including Vodafone, Gucci and Coca-Cola, which all turned in solid gains. When a share started to taper off the club sold, as with P&O Ferries, the troubled operator that recently announced half-year losses.

Shares in trendy mobile phone operators and high- street retailers proved popular with many of the competing teams, but the girls were careful to spread their risk exposure: "We looked for shares from a variety of industries," says Katy Carmichael. "We didn't want to put all our eggs in one basket."

It's always fun to hear tales of young tyros trouncing the professionals, but the St George's investment club is more than a one-off. They lack the econo-speak and technical language of the experts, but they show that even the most financially naïve can develop solid investing skills with a little effort.

As they shyly disclose their favourite stock-picking practices, the teens do not fully appreciate their sophistication. Technical terms such as portfolio diversification, stop-loss policies and momentum investing may not ring a bell, but they rigorously employed them in their strategy.

"The girls really got their teeth into the competition," says Tara Golshan, Proshare's head of education and a member of the judging panel. Ms Golshan believes that wider education at school level will translate into more responsible investors. Lessons in stock investing, for example, raise awareness in related areas, such as money management, interest rate changes and other investment products.

Today's consumer-conscious teens may be wiser to the value of money, but few are taught how to manage it properly. Nearly half of students say they have little or no knowledge of savings and deposit accounts, according to a survey by the Personal Finance Education Group (PFEG).

Nearly 60 per cent of sixth-formers say they are uninformed about loans, over-drafts and mortgages - an astonishing figure, considering those heading to university can expect to accumulate an average £12,000 in debt.

Vola Parker, manager of financial education at PFEG, says: "Most teens leave home without realising how many bills will have to be paid ... Learning where not to put your money is just as important as learning what works well. Better to learn the harder lessons when the losses are virtual."

And as Jennifer Anderson says: "I could not have imagined getting up in front of a hundred or so people to talk about things like stocks, venture capital trusts and ISAs before; it's amazing what I have learned." She is now considering a career in finance.

Winning the Investor Challenge is a terrific boost as the girls head off to the competitive environment of university. Financial education, they believe, is a sure-fire investment with superior returns.

YOUNG PEOPLE'S GUIDE TO MONEY MATTERS

* The Proshare Student Investor Competitions are open to all UK schools and colleges. To order an information pack, contact Tara Golshan on 020 7220 1730, or visit www.proshare.org.

* The Personal Finance Education Group, PFEG, offers resources for teaching personal finance. Lessons can be downloaded from their website at www.pfeg.org, or call 020 7220 1735.

* NatWest offers students and teachers free lessons on money management. For more information on the Face2Face With Finance project, visit www.natwestf2f.com.

* Barclays offers a financial training pack to students and a variety of student banking products. More information is available in the magazine Talk Student & Graduates, available from all Barclays branches.

* DebtCred, a money education project, offers two guides to help school leavers prepare for money issues. See www.debtcred.org.uk.

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