Rising to the Fed Challenge

Lots of reading and hard work, plenty of creativity—and a great adviser—make for an economic-competition team that's one of the nation’s best.

The Motivator

According to the five Rutgers–Newark students who participated in the 2009 College Fed Challenge, a national economics competition organized by the Federal Reserve System, Professor John Graham, the team’s adviser, is like the pied piper of finance. He exerts a mysterious power over students that renders them incapable of resisting the lure of interest rates, money supply, and fiscal and monetary strategy.

“I came to Rutgers as a mathematics major, planning on becoming a chemical engineer. It was only after I took micro- and macroeconomics, to fulfill my social science requirement, that I decided to major in the field,” says Sharissa Barrow, a member of the team and the only woman on any team to compete at the 2009 national championship. Graham was also the one who encouraged her to take the Fed Challenge plunge.

Victor Castaneda remembers that, for him, the chance to be a part of the team was a compelling reason to excel in a seminar conducted by Graham, who is the chair of the Rutgers–Newark Department of Economics. “The first day of classes he told us that if we got an A, he would invite us to participate in the competition.”

Prepared for the Challenge

In the Fed Challenge competition, teams give a 20-minute presentation during which they analyze the current state of the economy, offer an economic forecast, and make monetary policy recommendations to the Fed. This year, more than 30 colleges and universities participated in the New York region alone.

For the second time since it started competing in 2005, the team from Rutgers–Newark took first place in the New York regional competition, advancing to the national championship in Washington, D.C., where the Rutgers students came in second behind Lafayette. Harvard finished third and Northwestern was fourth.

All five students recall the hard work and long hours they put in getting ready to compete. “I prepared for this competition by reading, reading, and then reading some more,” says team member Michael Martins, a student in University College–Newark.

“We would meet every Friday during the summer for about two hours,” recalls Diego LaFuente, who like Sharissa and Victor, is a student in the Newark College of Arts and Sciences. “We read speeches, minutes, news, academic papers by Federal Reserve members.”

The Lucky Seat

And while all five students credit their adviser with keeping them focused, providing guidance, and cheering them on, when it came down to the day of the competition, Graham wasn’t above rubbing a rabbit’s foot or two. At the New York finals, team member Lakshya Aeri, who is enrolled in Rutgers Business School–Newark and New Brunswick, remembers noticing that Graham was extremely particular about where he would be sitting while he watched his team compete. When Lakshya asked why, Graham replied, “This is my lucky seat. The last time we won in New York, I sat here.”

The Rutgers team members will share $10,000 of the prize provided by the Moody’s Foundation, a competition sponsor, while $5,000 goes to the economics department.