MBA “Games” Lead to Real-World Investing Success

Student exercises in institutional investing become more widespread and sophisticated, making graduates better at their finance jobs.

“Even though they don’t take the money home with them, there is a pride of victory that is really critical,” says Wilson.

The fear of losing is also an important part of the learning process, according to Prof. Bhojraj, who has counseled students during office hours about crashing portfolios. “Often the limitation of experiential learning is that they’re no real consequences of bad decisions,” adds Dan LeClair, vice president and chief knowledge officer of AACSB, the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business. “In these cases, there are real consequences.”

Universities often start the funds with a portion of the school’s endowment. Some, such as the Tuck Investment Club at Dartmouth University, began with an alumni donation, while others are funded entirely by investors. “In some ways this is the school putting its money where it’s mouth is,” says LeClair. “Business schools need to be involved in practice; we can’t live in an abstract world.”

Students seem to agree, and clamor for classes and school clubs that offer investment funds. The funds also have become a major recruiting tool for the MBA programs that have them. Many use glossy annual reports to publicize the investing success of their funds, and their students.

A Job at Fidelity

Amrita Dukeshier, a second-year MBA student at McCombs, says she probably would not have the job that she has lined up at Fidelity were it not for her experience working on the university’s $16-million fund covering the energy markets. “What we do in the fund is exactly what an equity analyst does,” Dukeshier says.

MBA investment funds are also growing out of a sense of competition and a desire to be cutting-edge. In its recent pitch to create a student investment fund at the University of Georgia’s Terry College of Business, the school noted that many of the top ten public MBA programs have student managed funds and that Terry would need one if it wanted to compete. Funds are also focusing on hot areas of finance, testing out hedge fund strategies and different mixes of investments. The Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, in keeping with its high-minded reputation, is even starting a fund dedicated to socially responsible investing.

The biggest knock on the programs is the same one that applies to MBA programs for finance in general: that existing in the educational setting as they do, they simply are too theoretical compared to on-the-job work in a finance department.

Tim Zack, a recruiter for In-Site Search who looks for candidates to work in hedge funds and investment banks, says he usually avoids MBAs altogether, regardless of any school-based investing background. He prefers PhDs or masters-degree students with rigorous quantitative and technical training. At Credit Suisse, the head of U.S. recruiting, Julie Kalish, says that experience at a university investment fund has not been a deciding factor when hiring at the investment bank, however the additional practical experience is always helpful.

But other employers are paying attention to the trend. “I think companies do take seriously the real life experiences that are provided by the educational environment,” AACSB’s Dan LeClair says. “When you can provide situations where there are some meaty consequences, that’s even better.”

Most useful might be the chance to work with classmates in an environment that is more openly competitive than the classroom.

First-year MBA students at Tuck are required to make stock pitches to second-year members of the investment club as a pre-requisite for entering the interview pool to meet with investment firms. Professor Robert Howell, the advisor for Tuck’s club, says that students who do not experience that hazing ritual will find the actual interview process overwhelming. Still, he acknowledges, even the most realistic university investment club cannot fully replicate the pace and stress of the real job. “They have a good time with it,” Howell says of the school’s fund, which manages between $250,000 and $500,000. “It’s a toy for them.”

As for comparisons with school-based investing in the 1960s, technology has made a huge difference, of course. And learning to manage a portfolio is much more exciting than it was back then. “It wasn’t as engaging a game as it is today,” Dave Wilson notes. “You had to write a letter to a company to get a 10K or annual report. To follow the stock prices, you had to go downtown and watch the ticker.”

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