CAPTIVA ISLAND, FLA. -- Todd Francis is bullish on General Motors Corp. "Although GM profits have slumped lately," he reasoned, "the company will come out with new products to get them rolling again."
This is not a stock analyst talking. Francis is a 15-year-old student from Wilmington, N.C., explaining why he just decided to purchase one share of GM.
Francis was one of 17 teen-agers who recently participated in a week-long primer on finance for teen-agers called Dollars
Sense. After learning the nuts and bolts of Wall Street at the South Seas Plantation resort, the junior investors were given the final task of setting up their own stock account with a $100 "rebate" from their $500 tuition.
The camp and similar programs were created two years ago as a way to stimulate the sluggish South Florida hotel business during the steamy summer season.
Collectively dubbed capitalist camps or Wall Street by the Sea, they have attracted attention as far away as Japan. Barron's columnist Alan Abelson last month castigated the programs for instilling "Wall Street fear and greed" in the kids instead of "Boy Scout values of honesty and loyalty." Nevertheless, imitators in other parts of the country are seeking to capitalize on the concept while the stock market, and interest in it, are still soaring. Advanced classes and seminars for adults are also being contemplated.
For two hours each morning, instructors guide their young charges through the maze of tables in The Wall Street Journal and the procedures for setting up a company and issuing stock, as well as the priorities and hard choices needed to devise a personal budget.
Bringing Sesame Street to Wall Street, Lois O'Connor and Paul Vattiat, both former teachers who are now stockbrokers with Shearson Lehman Bros. Inc. in West Palm Beach, dramatized the principles of finance and coached the 12 boys and five girls, who ranged in age from 10 to 15, on various categories of stocks. "We give kids a process of making decisions," said Vattiat. "We're not trying to teach 10-year-olds how to make money,"
Nevertheless, one 10-year-old girl already had her eye on a white convertible she hoped to buy with her investment proceeds. Other plans ranged from paying college tuition to enabling one student's father to retire early.
Norman Raymond, a New Jersey broker with Gruntal & Co. who taught a money management camp earlier this summer at the Breakers in Palm Beach, stressed understanding risk and instilling values. One of the most popular sessions was ethics, he said. Ivan Boesky's name was never mentioned. Instead, the campers were asked their opinion of insider trading at the "Serious Sneaker Co.," and whether partners in a lemonade stand should split the profits equally if the bulk of the business occurs while one is home for lunch.
"These kids are not nerdy; they're not precocious," said Raymond. "There's no reason why kids today shouldn't learn how the market works; after all, they hear about the Dow Jones every day on TV."
Some of the responses to instructors' questions were those of typical teens. Introducing a discussion of mutual funds, Vattiat asked, "What would you do if you wanted a CD player and didn't have enough money to buy it?" A girlish voice replied, "Ask Mom and Dad," only to be booed by her peers.
Asked why the U.S. government issues bonds, the kids offered the following suggestions: to make arms, to feed the homeless, to pay the president his salary. Only with prodding did they think of the national debt. Municipal bonds, opined Barbara Finch, 10, of Ft. Myers, Fla. are used for things like paying people to drag alligators out of ponds where people swim.
What causes bond prices to decline stumped the students. And some thought that all or part of the money invested in mutual funds was guaranteed. On the other hand, several "pyuppies," as O'Connor and Vattiat called them, displayed unexpected knowledge. One boy knew that the Japanese buy a lot of U.S. bonds. Eric Gunderson, 13, of Seattle, correctly defined the spread as the difference between the bid and ask price. And Luis Leguizamon, 14, of Kalamazoo, Mich., accurately described the features of a zero coupon bond.
Some members of the group, like Adam Lotz, 12, son of a Sarasota stock broker, came at the urging of parents. Others, like Penny Wermuth, 13, the daughter of a High Bridge, N.J., accountant, begged their parents to attend -- a parent or guardian must accompany each child to the resort.
Patrick Macken, 13, of Richland, Mich., who wants to become a stock broker, and Ernesto Leguizamon, 14, of Kalamazoo, who wants to own his own company, were among the few future financiers in attendance.
Most campers, however, said they just wanted to be able to manage their own money. Quite a few have custodial accounts and are aware of the stocks in them. Coby Mott, 14, of Ft. Myers, who models part- time, already owns shares in a mutual fund. She said her father thought it would be good if she started investing for herself. "So I can retire early," quipped Austin Mott, the resort's general manager.
On the penultimate day, two teams were formed to pick stocks for a mock mutual fund. Instructed to concentrate on industries that are important to teen-agers, the campers predictably proposed companies making or selling fast foods, computers, television, movies, cars and clothes. They pored over Standard & Poor's stock guide, discussing highs and lows, price/earnings ratios, diversification and mergers. But in the end, the decision on whether to include Reebok or Nike, Coca-Cola or Pepsi, Wendy's or McDonald's seemed to dissolve into a popularity contest.
After a spirited vote, the teams combined their stock picks and selected 10 for the hypothetical $1 million fund. They chose to invest $100,000 each in Coca-Cola Co., Sony Corp., Walt Disney Co., Nike Inc., McDonalds Corp., International Business Machines Corp., General Electric Co., Gulf & Western Inc., General Motors Corp. and Federated Department Stores Inc.
Are kids good stock pickers? The experience of two previous teams coached and tracked by O'Connor and Vattiat indicates their results are on a par with the professionals, as analyzed by The Wall Street Journal. On July 23, 1986, the Dollars
Sense campers set up a fund composed of Disney, Viacom International, IBM, Turner Broadcasting System Inc., General Electric Co., Reebok International Ltd., McDonalds, Coca-Cola, Apple Computers Inc. and Delta Air Lines Inc. In 13 months it appreciated by 39.26 percent. That compares with 12-month growth of summer stock lists of 10 stocks from major brokerages. In this category the winners were Piper Jaffray & Hopwood Inc. of Minneapolis with a 37 percent gain; Prudential-Bache Securities Inc., 36 percent; Merrill Lynch & Co., 34 percent; and Shearson Lehman Bros. Inc. -- their teachers' employer -- 29 percent.
Measured against the performance of 211 actual growth stock mutual funds, as tracked by Lipper Analytical Services, the mythical Teen Fund bested the average gain of 30.93 percent by more than 8 percentage points.
Two months ago another group of campers picked a portfolio consisting of Coca-Cola, AT&T, Gulf & Western Inc., GE, Anheuser-Busch Companies Inc., Disney, IBM, GM, McDonalds and Carter-Wallace Inc., a condom manufacturer. The mock fund has appreciated 9.5 percent; in the same period, Lipper's average for growth funds was 6.76 percent.
For a finale, the kids got to choose a stock for real. (Because minors are not allowed to buy securities, a parent's name is also on the account.) In Palm Beach there was a limousine ride to the brokerage office where the teen-agers placed the orders; on isolated Captiva Island they had to settle for writing out orders and giving them to the instructors. How much of a flier in the market are teen-agers wiling to take? Like their elders, they run the gamut from aggressive to conservative investors, said O'Connor. Eric Gunderson, who likened stock picking to gambling, was the only teen-ager to choose an oil and gas partnership for his personal portfolio. "I think it's going to skyrocket. It also has good dividends." Aaron Kesselheim, 13, of Cherry Hill, N.J., who yearns for a career in politics, said he likes taking risks. Already the owner of AT&T, Bali Co. and Xerox Corp. shares, he bought Exxon Corp despite the volatility in the price of oil and troubles in the Persian Gulf because "the need for oil will grow."
Although utilities are frequent favorites of conservative, older investors, several local teen-agers bought Florida Power & Light, explaining that the demand for electricity was likely to grow in their booming state. "They may also have heard their parents talk about the fat dividend checks," said O'Connor.
Not surprisingly, many of the for-real personal choices duplicated the industries in the pretend pool. Penny Wermuth chose Cherokee Group, a new women's apparel manufacturer, saying she had "inside information on the company." Vattiat explained that he could not ethically take her order if that were so. As it turned out, the information was public and the order went through.
After graduation, the capitalist campers reflected on their experience. "From now on I'm going to think before I buy, save up for some real nice things, not just buy junk," Coby Mott said. Aaron Kesselheim summed it up this way: "I came to learn how to invest in the market. I thought it was going to be tough to learn. But it's pretty easy. And it's fun.