To a teen, Wall Street's beyond belief

February 23, 2003|By Nicholas Leonhardt

THERE'S A major problem with the stock market. The problem is not that it fluctuates more erratically than Brian Billick's blood pressure. The real crisis is that we let Wall Street control our money and our emotions.

America is by nature suspicious. Behind a Sloman Shield and deadbolt lock, we still speculate that the government is hiding alien aircraft in Area 51 or concealing JFK's assassins. Yet we eagerly buy stock in a system we don't fully understand and can't police and then snarl when we lose money. Consumers who won't buy a toaster without checking its warranty and Consumer Reports rating will blithely invest in a mutual fund that offers no guarantee.

Granted, the stock market is confusing to both adult investors and teen-aged observers. Bulls and bears frequently stampede down Wall Street as stock traders, famed for their wild hand gestures, attempt to herd them through the market.

Few can explain why the Dow Jones Industrial Average leaps, then stumbles. This winter, however, the Dow has skinned its knees repeatedly. And the Dow, it seems, doesn't simply fall when it goes down - it plummets. And when it goes up, it surges, many times without a logical explanation.

This Wall Street phenomenon apparently has human feelings - economists describe the market as "depressed" one day but "optimistic" the next.

Sometimes it even gets personal. "The market doesn't like O'Neill," a strategist for A. G. Edwards noted when Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill was fired.

Other times, a stock splits, which sounds painful.

To American youths, these mood swings of the stock market seem puzzling. But when Enron executives get more press than J. Lo and Ben Affleck, Wall Street has reached a crisis. So who supports the market despite its double-digit decline in the past year? The same adults who dutifully teach their children fiscal conservatism.

Since the Tooth Fairy's first deposit - a small-cap venture with liquid dividends - American children are taught to budget and save. From the piggy bank to U.S. Savings Bonds presented by teary grandmothers on graduation, American teens heed sermons to save for college and car insurance.

These students can spot the hypocrisy in the stock market because they identify with it.

Take the quarterly earnings reports. To earn a plus, a stock need not actually perform well; it merely has to do better than analysts expect. This is as outrageous as the slacker in the back row of class demanding to make the honor roll because he didn't blow the chemistry final as badly as his teacher expected.

And the market never accepts blame for its downturns. When stocks plummet, a whiny Wall Street points its finger at Iraq, housing starts, unemployment figures, Congress or that nebulous culprit, "consumer confidence." Kids know this is the market's equivalent of whimpering, "The dog ate my homework."

Nicholas Leonhardt is a high school sophomore from Lutherville.

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