The world of finance can be one of the most cutthroat industries in America, and those looking to make a career of it need to seize any advantage they can get. For local students, the University of Memphis Fogelman College of Business and Economics (FCBE) has a way to get ahead of the game.
Only so much of the pressure and winner-takes-all feel of finance can be conveyed in the classroom. To expand its repertoire of teaching tools, U of M turned the first floor of the FCBE into the Cook Analytics & Trading Lab. Funded and overseen by Michael W. Cook, founder and CEO of Southern Asset Management, the lab is set to mimic a Wall Street trading firm. Some of its features include real-time tickers, Bloomberg terminals, and access to various online databases. The resources available at the school make the lab a significant resource for students looking to move into the finance world.
“Teaching these classes here now becomes much more intuitive. It’s no longer just in the pages of a book; the students can see what’s actually happening,” says Vivek Sharma, manager of the lab. Over the last three years, the strategy of providing a hands-on approach to business and finance education is paying off.
Recently, two student teams at the FCBE have been recognized at competitions for outstanding financial work. A five-student team ranked in the top 5 percent at the Bloomberg Trading Competition. Dylan Ledbetter (MS, Information Systems, MSBA, Finance); Zachary Golden (MS, Information Systems); Yi Lu (Ph.D. candidate); Zachary Morton (MSBA, Finance); and Lokesh Chinthala (MS, Information Systems, reserve member) participated in “The University Challenge,” an eight-week trading simulation that tasked teams with competing for the highest absolute return on a $10 million portfolio. The Memphis team placed 13th out of 265 teams represented by 81 different schools.
Earlier in the year, four Fogelman College students received first prize in the Southeastern Hedge Fund Competition in Atlanta, Georgia. While vying to learn investment strategies suitable for use by hedge funds, the team of Aubrey Ballard, Eithel McGowen LaTorre, Joseph Pascarella, and Charles Rodgers came up against teams from 39 other universities, including Duke, Emory, Vanderbilt, University of Tennessee, and Georgia Tech. The inaugural event was judged anonymously by hedge fund managers, and they chose to award the $10,000 scholarship prize to the University of Memphis team.
The teams’ successes can be traced back to time spent in the lab. In addition to monitoring events in real time, the Bloomberg terminals, which absorb any relevant information entered into the public domain, give them unparalleled access to any financial information they might want to find.
“Imagine that someone wanted to know what Apple looked like in 1998,” says Sharma. “We have that information here. If they wanted to see what Apple’s customers and suppliers looked like, we have that as well.”
One investigation can lead straight into another, and there is always updated information on things like stocks, bonds, currencies, and municipal bonds. “These are the tools that asset management companies and corporations look at when they’re studying risk management, asset management, and investor relations.” While renting the terminals on a month-to-month basis is pricey, their availability makes the lab the only center of its kind in a 180-mile radius.
One of the unique features of the lab is access to Oxford Analytica. At the behest of Michael Cook, students have access to many of the reports that the international consulting firm provides on a worldwide scale. In addition to financial information, the reports also contain insights on geographic and geopolitical issues. The wide scope of data helps provide a clearer picture of all relevant factors to the financial landscape.
Sharma believes that the lab not only creates a better educational experience but prepares students to succeed in a difficult profession. Finance is a very competitive field, but some of the competitors that he oversaw have made the step up into a concrete career path, which has led them to hedge funds, banks, consulting firms, and one of the larger conglomerates. “Everyone’s doing well, and this experience doesn’t just give them the confidence that they can compete at the highest level, but it also equips them to use the tools they need,” he says. “If they need information for their job, they know how to find it and they know how to analyze it.”
While most of its students have reaped the benefits, the lab isn’t just for FCBE students. The University of Memphis hosts a Young Wall Street program, an intensive financial market instructional course for high schoolers. The aim is to give kids exposure to financial markets and perhaps pique their interest in a career in finance. Access to these kinds of tools is uncommon for students of that age, and it would be no surprise to see more pursuing a financial degree after learning at the Cook Analytics & Trading Lab. With all the advantages the lab provides for students, Memphis is set to provide a new wave of sharp financial minds in the future.