London's Cass business school has created a virtual trading room. Nicholas Pyke pays it a visit

There is a traditional street market just round the corner from the plush new headquarters of the Sir John Cass Business School in London. It sells the same mix of fruit, veg, cheap batteries and plastic things as most London markets, sadly in decline. At one time the drive, wit and mental dexterity of the traders - "the barrow boys" - were an established factor in the capital's commercial success, synonymous with the dealing rooms of the City.

Times, though, have moved on for both types of market, vegetable and financial. There are fewer Cockney accents than there were in the exchanges, and many more degrees. Where once a quick mind on a crowded floor, combined with sharp elbows, could earn millions for the City banks, now there are rows of glimmering machines to do the thinking for them.

The MBA students at Cass might buy their oranges at the market round the corner, but they too make their decisions the modern way. In fact they have a mini-dealing room of their own: a bank of 12 data terminals with 48 mesmerising screens of wiggly lines and coloured graphs.

Cass is the one-year-old re-branding of the former City Business School (attached to City University). Already prestigious in its former incarnation, it now boasts corporate-style premises and an impressive investment in new technology.

It is more than gimmickry, says Roy Batchelor, professor of banking and finance at the school. The screens are certainly useful practice for the students, many of whom go on to use exactly the same technology in the nearby City sky scrapers. More importantly, it is a powerful tool for understanding international markets of growing complexity, not to mention the derivative markets that feed off them. "Students perceive this as a great add-on," he says. "It's been a huge step up in terms of our programmes."

Jennifer Caswell is one MBA student getting to grips with the electronic displays. Already familiar with the corporate world, Jennifer is taking a masters course at Cass because she wants to work in the City, and knows that understanding the screens is essential. "With this system you have got everything in one place, as opposed to flipping through pages and pages in the library, trying to see the comparisons in your mind," she explains.

Jennifer, an international student from Texas, was comparing the performance of two stocks, Reuters and Pearson, whose share prices moved side-by-side in graph form as the minutes went by. There seems to be no limit to the information available, from stocks to currency prices, half-yearly results to football results, all of it chopped up, analysed and packaged according to what the student - or in normal cases the financial analyst - wants.

Richard Otumodu, sitting next to her, has already been in the business as a trader with TD Securities in Toronto. Knowning the machines is so important now, he says; it can be the difference between employment and unemployment. "The technology is a great way of keeping a job. I do know people who are still in the business because they know the system. You can distinguish yourself from the other players."

The kit itself belongs to Bloomberg, the financial information giant. Normally the four-screen terminals cost $1,250 (£681) a year per machine to hire. But Cass gets them for free. And in return Bloomberg gets to persuade a new generation of city workers that its programmes and hardware are the industry standard.

Bloomberg even supplies a trainer to the school, the appropriately named Rafael Bloom, helping students and academics to use the machines to best advantage. "It's just like being in a bank," says Bloom. "We run courses in technical analysis, trying to forecast what the market is going to do on the basis of statistical indicators." His part of the course, he says, is a bit like "a degree in Bloomberg", helping them deal with the surfeit of information.

Needless to say, neither the students nor the staff are averse to a bit of financial trading on their own account. Staff recall one student who went missing every afternoon - around the time the markets open.

The dealing room isn't live, of course: there are no millions to be made on the premises, nor are there disastrous consequences for "fat finger" slips on the keyboard because no actual deals can be done. But the accessibility of so much analytical data is a major help to the many students playing the markets at home.

One of the things it is particularly useful for is staging simulations of moving markets, in which a room full of students can trade against one another, and the system. It is the sort of exercise staged by some banks as part of their selection process.

As if the screens are not enough, Bloomberg Television is also on view - a rolling series of financial bulletins and interviews with city bigwigs - presented in a carefully manicured, American style, with an endless ticker of city prices zooming along at the bottom of the screen.

The main point of the technology, however, is academic, says Professor Batchelor. In a nutshell: "It's one stage beyond a dry essay on effective markets." It is also of huge practical benefit. The course, he explains, aims to give the students a theory of finance so that by the time they are let loose on the software, they already know a lot more than the traditional barrow boy.

"The typical city dealer now is not like they were 20 years ago. They are often graduates who may have done a science degree, or an MBA. If you want to rise to the top of an investment bank, you really need something like this to pull you beyond the mere higher degree level."

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