Student fund managers are in the big league now

15 Hebrew University students manage the NIS 6 million out of a 'transaction headquarters' on campus, and use an account with the Union Bank.

uni students 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
uni students 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It outperformed nine of 12 investment funds, and recently tripled its portfolio value. Its former managers have gone on to major financial positions in Israel and abroad. But you won't find this fund listed on any stock index. That's because it's actually not a fund at all, but a Hebrew University course for MA students that gives them the opportunity to play the market with real money. Last week, the university announced that the fund's cash base has been increased to NIS 6 million, so the 15 students chosen to the highly selective course will now be dealing with real-world investment scenarios on a real-world scale. Prof. Zvi Weiner, who has run the course for over five years, says students make vastly different decisions when they are aware that their actions will have real consequences. "Lots of courses are run with imaginary accounts, and you always see the same pattern. Some students will risk everything, with one or two making a killing and the rest ending up with nothing," he said. Now, with millions of genuine shekels at stake, the students have to take into account such areas as risk management and creating an appropriate investment profile. There is a real board of directors which applies limits to the financial activities, while the student CEO oversees teams working on stocks, bonds and other financial instruments. One such CEO - the job changes hands every semester - was Hoshea Greenberg, a second-year MA student who said this was the most realistic course he had ever taken, and one of the most intensive. "The course is worth six credits, which is already a relatively large course," said Greenberg, "but the actual effort put into the course is not even remotely comparable to similar courses. It becomes an integral part of each of the students' lives." The students have a "transaction headquarters" at the campus's business faculty, where they have access to the premier financial information services, Bloomberg and Reuters. They execute transactions through an account at the Union Bank. The student teams work throughout the week preparing their analyses and planning the fund's next moves, meeting Sunday evenings, together with the professor, to discuss their choices. Students must relate to the theoretical aspects of their decisions, and are sometimes called upon to devise novel financial instruments, rather than resorting to "off-the-shelf" tools available from banks and other institutions. Greenberg said he and his 15 fellow students in this year's course had a difficult time at first, despite years of theoretical classes in the investment field. Decision-making was sloppy, and the fund's performance showed it. "But," says Greenberg, "the learning curve has been very sharp, and we quickly learned how to make better decisions, and that has led to better results." Greenberg recalled how, a few weeks ago, the students thought the stock market would take a down turn, and decided to reduce the stock fraction of their portfolio. He proudly related that the decision paid off, as the markets have indeed been performing poorly since then. Gabriel David, the course instructor, said one of the primary values of the course was to give students a true sense of life as a portfolio manager. Along with the management of the course, students are treated to presentations by major players in the industry, from commercial banks to the Finance Ministry. They also take "field trips" to actual financial institutions, to get a look at the daily life of fund management. "This is the best way to get a feel for what the life of a portfolio manager is like. For some people it results in the decision to take that career path. For others, it leads to the discovery that this is not the career for them, which is also positive," David said. In some senses, he asserted, the fund is better managed then commercially available funds. "If you have a fund at a bank, you usually have one person looking at any one aspect of it. Here, there are five students on each team: the stock team, the bond team, a macroeconomic analysis team, a risk assessment team and a performance assessment team. That's a lot more attention than would be paid to a run-of-the-mill portfolio." Still, when asked whether he would invest in the fund, Weiner replied candidly: "When you are learning to drive, the driving instructor uses a car that has an extra set of brakes. That's not necessarily the car that you actually would want to buy."