He teaches inner-city kids how to be smart about money

Douglas Coe has founded the Bulls and Bears summer camp, where kids can try being a stock analyst – and learn how to handle their own finances too.

Susan Pfannmuller/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Douglas Coe (center), founder and director of the Bull and Bear Investment Camp, poses with his campers (some of whom are throwing trading cards in the air) on the floor of the Kansas City (Mo.) Board of Trade. Mr. Coe’s parents taught him, ‘Be a person ... who reaches back and lifts others up,’ he says.

Trading was fast and furious in August on shares of a little-known manufacturer of organic health foods. Market analysts, portfolio managers, and stock traders pored over earnings reports and financial data. Brokers scurried to fill buy-and-sell orders before the market closed.

Then came the news: Fires in Russia, floods in Pakistan, and a heat wave in the Midwest had sent prices on hard red winter wheat futures soaring in the trading pits of the Kansas City Board of Trade. Heavily dependent on wheat, shares in the health food company plunged.

Rest assured that your portfolio did not sustain a hit. The health food manufacturer was one of six fictional companies whose pretend shares were "traded" by 50 children attending the Bull and Bear Investment Camp in Kansas City, Mo.

Started by financial adviser Douglas Coe, the camp is designed to introduce young people to the basics of finance in a fun way.

"We have camps in our community and throughout America that train our children's bodies, and we need that," Mr. Coe says. "But we also need camps to train our children's minds."

Though it doesn't offer hiking in the woods, sleeping under the stars, or canoeing on a river, the Bull and Bear Camp has been popular since its inception in 1992. The free one-week session is promoted primarily in the inner city, but any youth between fourth and 12th grade can attend.

Campers are divided into two groups, the Bulls and the Bears. Each team member has a job: head trader, portfolio manager, economist, market analyst, stock trader, or commodity trader. The teams buy and sell stock in that summer's mock companies. The team with the highest portfolio value at the end of camp is declared the winner.

Bounding into a meeting room at the Bruce R. Watkins Cultural Heritage Center and Museum on Kansas City's east side, sharply dressed in a suit and tie, Coe looks every inch the financial adviser. An animated speaker with a sunny disposition, hearty laugh, and seemingly limitless energy, he has no problem holding the attention of 50 young people for two hours.

Part teacher, part preacher, and part entertainer, he provides plenty of opportunities for classroom participation.

By the end of the week, the campers have learned about the principles of supply and demand, inflation, credit and debt, bonds, commodities, compound interest, market sectors, market indices, ticker symbols, algorithms, and electronic trading.

One highlight is a trip to the Kansas City Board of Trade, a commodities exchange, where, after-hours, the children engage in a mock trading session on the floor of the exchange.

On the last day, Coe delivers a passionate oration on the traps of bad credit, high-interest payday loans, and excessive debt, which he calls financial slavery.

"Owing someone else is worse than being broke!" he warns.

His goal is not to steer the children to careers in financial services – though he says he would love to see more minorities and women in that field – but to inspire them to begin saving early and not to be intimidated by financial matters.

"I think the camp is doing a tremendous amount of good," says Michael Braude, the retired president of the Kansas City Board of Trade, who gives talks at the camps. "A lot of what we say goes over their heads, but some of it sticks. And what sticks gives the kids something to build on."

Sierra Williamson, a 10th-grader, has attended the camp twice. Because of what she learned, she is more conscious of not spending money frivolously and saving for the future, she says. "I want to be a stock broker and be able to handle money. Even though I don't have any bonds or anything like that now, I like saving my money."

Coe grew up in a predominantly African-American Kansas City neighborhood in a middle-class family that valued education. His father has a doctorate in education. His mother, an attorney, is active in local politics and served on the city council. His grandfather was an economist in the Lyndon Johnson administration.

"Education and giving back were always stressed in our family," Coe says. "Be a person who not only climbs up, but who reaches back and lifts others up."

After graduating from Atlanta's Morehouse College in 1991 with a journalism degree, Coe worked as an investment consultant for Kemper Securities. In 1995, he started Moody Reid Financial Advisors, an investment firm.

While Coe was at Kemper, he was invited to talk to a group of at-risk children about basic financial matters. He realized the need for financial education, especially among children in the inner city. These children, as well as children from all backgrounds, are at risk if they are sent out into the world without the basic tools they need to manage their finances, he concluded.

Coe receives requests to conduct his camp in other communities around the country. He has held it several times in New York City and plans to present it next summer in Baltimore and Atlanta. His ultimate goal is to make it a national program.

With the economy so uncertain, Coe feels that more than ever children need to grasp the fundamentals of financial literacy. "We know how difficult it is out in the world," he says. "We love our children so much, we know we have to do a better job of preparing them for the new norm."

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