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Democratizing Wall Street: Inspired by 'Hoofy & Boo,' 'Seasonal Odds' Aims to Level the Playing Field

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Here's how a Harvard PhD Candidate and a Visiting Scholar at the Federal Reserve was inspired to work in financial education by watching animated cartoons.

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Most people at the US Federal Reserve would understandably be reluctant to admit that they first learned about financial markets from an animated talking bear.

Likely most did not. But I am the front end of a very different generation - late-twenty-somethings who first became aware of markets when the Internet was already in existence, and who underwent many of their early financial educational experiences online.

While many in the early 2000s wondered what would come of the kids who were spending countless hours in front of these new, interconnected computer screens, I am happy to report that my hours spent with two animated talking characters in particular - Hoofy and Boo - christened a journey into markets and finance that years later culminated in a PhD at Harvard and a Visiting Scholar position at the Federal Reserve. The New Media - and especially Hoofy and Boo - now have at least one coming-of-age success story - and without a doubt, hundreds more will emerge over the coming years as the teenagers who grew up with them leave university and enter the upper echelons of Wall Street.

Why would a PhD Candidate at Harvard and a Visiting Scholar at the Federal Reserve admit that he started his journey into financial education by watching animated cartoons? Because at a time when wealth is becoming increasingly stratified, information technology and New Media are one of the few prevailing counterforces. They are transforming financial education, increasing transparency around once-proprietary knowledge, and leveling the playing field in a domain of human activity where, as Gordon Gekko once put it, information is the most valuable commodity.

I am merely a case in point. I come from a middle-class family and went to public school all my life prior to studying political economy at Harvard. But my experiences with Hoofy and Boo - and the success I've been fortunate enough to enjoy in my educational and professional life (without having had the benefit of private tutors or the advantages of elite boarding schools) - is emblematic of what becomes possible when education is democratized by information technology.

As those adorable characters argued about finance in their timeless, ageless sessions, my generation gained an appealing window into forms of financial knowledge that many on Wall Street hoarded in order to earn their livelihoods.

Of course, Hoofy and Boo - and the immersive online education movements they represent - are only the most recent data points in the centuries-long growth curve of informational access. At one point, mere numeracy itself - the ability to understand basic arithmetic - separated those who were empowered to benefit from commerce from those who could not even verify whether they were being shortchanged. Around the time of the Renaissance, the development of a relatively standardized system of accounting ledgers empowered merchants to track an increasing array of private transactions, where once only kings and lords had the resources to accurately maintain such accounts. The development of relatively commoditized private lending and borrowing over the subsequent centuries (on terms more standardized than Shylock's "flesh bond" in The Merchant of Venice) enabled a robust commercial class to emerge from the financial grip of those same European monarchs, arguably precipitating many of the political revolutions that followed.

The founding of the Dutch East India Company in 1602 and the first stock exchanges that emerged in Holland and Britain over the course of that century provided ordinary laymen with the first-ever opportunity to participate in the risks and benefits of what were previously the exclusive profit domains of sovereign states, their kings, and treasuries, such as naval exploration, foreign trade, wars, and large-scale infrastructure projects. Similarly, the creation of early insurance and pension instruments in late 17th century Britain increased mass public accessibility to financial planning, and introduced the first-ever possibility that the lives of ordinary people and their families could be "hedged" against what Shakespeare called "the Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune" and the "whips and scorns of time."

In the 20th century, the rise of electronic trading, online brokerages, and ETFs enabled private middle class citizens - with no access to wealth managers or hedge funds - to gain types of market exposure and speeds of execution that were previously only imaginable to elite financial professionals meeting in glass-walled boardrooms overlooking Central Park.

Having been in many such boardrooms, I can confirm that this last step - where the ordinary citizens are freed from the professional merchant class, which itself was freed from the sovereign state - is perhaps the most disruptive transformation in financial markets that the world has ever known. Put another way, there is now less and less that the average private citizen investor structurally cannot do, once they learn how to do it, and whether or not they should. I recall a conversation I had with Chris Peacock, a senior editor at CNN, who described the feeling of almost 'subversive' empowerment he felt on behalf of Main Street when CNN first made electronic stock quotes available on the Web for free. Make no mistake, technological change is and always has been about subversion, disruption, creative distraction, and the empowerment of a new class of beneficiaries at the expense of an old guard.
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