- The Washington Times - Monday, March 20, 2000

It was a rough day on Wall Street.

The Nasdaq fell almost 30 points. Hot stocks such as Cisco and Qualcomm took hits. And the Fed was again talking about higher interest rates.

It's enough to give the toughest investor a monster-sized headache.

Just ask Cameron Johnson.

Logging on to his computer recently, he checked the market's activity and then sucked in a breath and groaned.

That's because his 1,000 shares of Advanced Phototonix, a high-tech company, fell 7.5 percent in the past 24 hours.

"This is pretty bad," he said glumly. "It can be pretty nerve-racking."

Especially if you're 15.

With his braces and boyish brown mop, Cameron, a freshman at Woodberry Forest School in Woodberry Forest, Va., seems too young to be an investor. But make no mistake, Cameron has the analytical eye and business acumen of someone at least twice his age.

The recent bull market has given rise to a new breed of Average Joe investors. Nearly everyone from soccer moms to truck drivers is buying shares in everything from the bluest blue-chip company to pork bellies to The Gap.

Now another group of investors is joining them: children. They may be too young to vote or drive, but kids are snapping up millions of dollars worth of stock, analyzing company profit margins in on-line chat rooms, giving their parents stock tips and doing their homework on price-to-earnings ratios.

Take Cameron.

At 9, he bought $680 worth of stock in Dell Computer Corp. At 11, when he sold his shares, they were worth $10,000. Not a bad profit margin for a fifth-grader.

Cameron is plugged into the business and financial world like many his age are into music and sports.

He monitors his stocks several times a day, devours financial news on the Web and subscribes to Forbes and Money magazines. He's started two successful Web-based companies and one printing company. And he has just started a fourth, an on-line venture that pays viewers to scroll the Internet.

While Cameron may be an unusual case, he's not alone.

"There's definitely a trend toward individual investment and more kids getting interested in this," said Donna Haggerty, national marketing director for the Securities Industry Foundation for Economic Education.

In Stein-Roe's Young Investor Fund, which specifically targets children, the number of investors exploded from 4,000 in 1994 to over 200,000 today.

The company started the $1.4 billion fund because it saw that young investors were a huge, untapped and profitable market, according to Erik Gustafson, portfolio manager for the fund.

These pint-sized shareholders often write in their suggestions, he said, which the company takes seriously. He said children may have an advantage in picking stocks because they know what products are on the cutting edge.

And more frequently, children get their introduction to Wall Street in school. Participation in classroom financial games has surged. For example, the number of students who play the popular in-school Stock Market Game has risen 75 percent since 1990 from 400,000 to 700,000.

The stock market boom especially the continuing feeding frenzy over high-technology stocks easy Internet access to the stock market and the proliferation of financial Web sites, TV programs and news have all fueled children's interest in investing, experts say.

"It just amazed me when I worked with young children what they could learn about the market and how intuitive they could be when analyzing things they heard in the news," said Joan Spence, a social studies and economics specialist for the Virginia Department of Education. "They're very, very sharp."

And because more adults are investing, their children will as well.

Joe Ferrel, an economics teacher at Chesterfield's James River High School, has seen his economics classes grow over the past few years.

"More people are talking about finances over the dinner table," Mr. Ferrel said. "So kids are getting on the Internet and learning how to become a good investor. They're into it."

One of his students, David Hamm, is a good example.

Mr. Hamm, an 18-year-old senior at James River, said he hopes to retire by his mid-to-late 30s, partly through the $30,000 he's invested so far. His dad tuned him into the stock market when he was a freshman, and he's been hooked ever since.

Mr. Hamm has invested his winnings from regional fishing tournaments and other earnings in mutual funds and 18 shares of America Online. He estimates his mutual fund returns at 33 percent over three years and is keeping a close eye on AOL.

Rhea R. Borja writes for the Richmond Times Dispatch.

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