For three months they acted like buttoned-down bankers, studying global stock market fluctuations and changes in the consumer price index and boning up on unemployment rates and inflation indicators.
For an intense 15 minutes they acted like financial whiz Alan Greenspan and the Federal Reserve Bank's Open Market Committee, debating whether short-term interest rates should go up or down.
And then, for a brief moment Tuesday, 10 North Hollywood High School students acted like typical giddy teenagers--erupting with cheers and hugs as they were named winners of the West Coast's first "Fed Challenge" economics contest.
The teens' argument for maintaining the current federal interest rate was convincing enough to win $36,000 and a free trip to Washington in May for a shot at another $50,000 in prize money from the Federal Reserve Bank.
"Before this, a lot of us had never understood exactly what the Federal Reserve does," acknowledged senior Diana Hong, 17, aligning herself with the vast majority of adults. "Some of our fellow students have never even heard of Alan Greenspan."
Eight hundred Southern California high schools were invited to participate in the contest by local Federal Reserve officials as a way to encourage careers in economics. Fifteen schools responded. Federal Reserve officials picked the first 10 that applied for the contest, but two later dropped out, said Federal Reserve spokesman Calvin Naito.
Students from the eight Los Angeles-area high schools that wound up competing Tuesday offered a variety of interpretations of what it is like when the dour Federal Reserve chairman and his important committee sit down to decide how to control America's money supply.
Glendora High School's Philip Marvin, 18, portrayed Greenspan as a U.S. senator conducting a Capitol Hill hearing, soliciting testimony from classmates playing the roles of business owners, corporate executives and consumers.
Temple City High's Brian Weiss, 17, showed Greenspan as a genial, democratic consensus-searcher mindful of dissidents on his mock committee.
Burbank's Burroughs High depicted Greenspan as a forceful leader. Alex Farsaad, 17, praised those on his school's pretend panel "for agreeing with me" to keep interest rates unchanged. He credited "baby boomers worried about Social Security" for fueling the dramatic rise of the stock market.
Sherman Oaks' Notre Dame High pictured Greenspan as a fanciful tour guide. Chad Murray, 18, led 17-year-old Hasmik Badalian, dressed as the Statue of Liberty, over plywood cutout "mountains" to a hilltop labeled the year 2000.
"Mr. Greenspan, we put our trust in you," Badalian said as she moved forward in time, raising and lowering a stick that represented interest rates moving incrementally up and down. The skit ended with music from the movie "2001--A Space Odyssey."
Students from the California Academy of Math and Science in Carson borrowed the give-and-take of a business meeting to depict Greenspan's committee at work. "We decided it would be dry and boring if one person talked for a long time," explained Daniel Tien, 17.
La Sierra High in Riverside decided that its most effective presentation would be one that mimicked a corporate board of directors meeting, said Delvonte Deary, 18.
El Segundo High had planned a formal committee-like presentation but decided at the last minute to make it more freewheeling to keep from boring the judges, said Shireen Husain, 17.
The judges--economic experts Jim Charkins, Jack Kyser, Jan Moulton, J. Gordon Palmer Jr. and Howard Roth--weren't bored.
"These are darn bright kids," marveled Kyser, an economic analyst with the private Economic Development Corp., an organization seeking to expand the economic base of the Los Angeles area.
Charkins, an economics professor at Cal State San Bernardino and executive director of EconomicsAmerica of California, said the North Hollywood team's confident answers to questions from judges at the end of the presentation were the determining factor in its victory.
As part of the team's economic analysis, Hong described increased housing construction and the tightening labor pool as "harbingers of upcoming inflation."
Teammate Jonah Lehrer likened the domino-like collapse of other nations' economies as an "international contagion that is seriously affecting our own economy as well."
He said the influx of cheap imports that has caused domestic manufacturers to increase production "just to compete" has been a factor in holding down inflation until now.
Winning North Hollywood students--who are all 17--included Mani Foroohar, Jonathan Stout, Patrick Yeghnazar and alternate Ladan Hagar in addition to Hong and Lehrer. Student researchers who compiled economic statistics for the team were Jackie Wong, Raymond Zimmer, Raymond Tsai and Mark Sandstrom.