Rising to the Challenge

January 13, 2012

Last summer, as members of BMCC’s Finance and Economics Club prepared to compete in the 2011 College Fed Challenge, their advisor, Yanni Tournas, urged them to keep a balanced perspective. “The goal,” he said, “isn’t to win but to learn.”

As it turned out, the club accomplished both.

Making BMCC’s first appearance in the annual event, held on October 28 at Pace University, the five team members walked off with first-place honors in the community college division, besting teams from New Jersey, Connecticut and New York.

The College Fed Challenge is an intercollegiate competition designed to encourage students to learn about the U.S. macro economy, the Federal Reserve System and the implementation of monetary policy and financial stability. It is also aimed at spurring interest in economics and finance as subjects for advanced study and as the basis for a career.

Standing their ground

According to Tournas, a veteran economist and associate professor in the Department of Business Management, each team made a 15-minute presentation before a panel of judges, outlining a proposal for Federal Reserve monetary policy over the next six months. The judges, who included Fed officials, business leaders and academics, asked follow-up questions.

“That meant the students had to be prepared to justify their recommendations and stand their ground,” Tournas. “I’ve taught at a number of schools, including Rutgers and Northwestern, and I can tell you without reservation that these students would have held their own against any of them. They were remarkable.”

Monetary policy, as Tournas explains the term, relates to the money supply and interest rates, both of which are controlled by the Fed in the service of a dual mandate—maintaining low inflation and full employment.

“Each team had to recommend actions the Fed could take to achieve those mandates and stimulate growth,” says team member Ekaterina Ponkina, a second-year Business Administration major. “Since housing is such a key component of the economy, we proposed that that improving the housing market should be the Fed’s main goal.”

Even as other areas of the economy, such as retail sales and consumer confidence, seem to be stabilizing, the housing market remains depressed. “We argued that monetary policy should focus on extreme accommodation for distressed homeowners,” Ponkina says.

“This could be accomplished by keeping interest rates low and offering additional programs to help financially distressed homeowners finance their mortgages.”

The five team members, assisted by the other members of the Finance and Economics Club, prepared for the challenge by immersing themselves in articles, research reports and other materials, and discussing ideas on a weekly basis through the summer and early fall.  In addition to Ponkina, they included Zsuzsa Blasko, Cristina Misa, Mumza Butt and Roshen Weliwetta. 

Thinking on their feet

“In preparing, each of us focused on a specific aspect of monetary policy, such as investments, savings and interest rates,” says Weliwetta, who adds that he has been passionately interested in economics since he was a child growing up in Sri Lanka. 

“It helped that we had a rich array of resources available to us and that Professor Tournas made himself so available to us. It was important to be prepared, but we knew we would also have to come up with spontaneous answers to the judges’ questions.”

For Tournas, the team’s preparation was as important as the competition itself, if not more so. “This was a wonderful opportunity for the students not only to learn about a variety of important issues, but to develop their critical thinking and presentation skills.”

Tournas, who joined the BMCC faculty five years ago, is known as a teacher who places a high priority on mastering the basics. “He would steer us away from using complicated words,” says Ponkina. “He’d say, ‘All I want to know is if you can explain these concepts to your grandmother.’”
The team was formally presented with their award at ceremony at the New York Federal Reserve Board in November. “You know, when we entered the Fed Challenge, we really didn’t have high hopes of accomplishing anything exceptional, other than to learn and gain experience that might help us in our studies and our careers,” says Ponkina.

 “But, of course,” she adds, almost as an afterthought, “winning was very exciting.”  

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  • Team garners top honors in its first appearance
  • Guided and inspired by Prof. Yanni Tournas
  • Students present recommendations on monetary policy

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