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CoB students earn high returns in annual TVA investment challenge

tva challenge 1


By Bill Studenc

A team of students from the Western Carolina University College of Business finished near the top in an annual competition sponsored by the Tennessee Valley Authority, putting together an investment portfolio that outperformed the stock market average.

The WCU finance students exceeded the Standard & Poor’s 500 index by nearly basis 400 points, earning not just another award for the College of Business trophy case but also a cash prize of $3,661 that will help support future student initiatives in the college.

Launched in 1998, the TVA Investment Challenge provides hands-on experience in financial asset management, with student teams actively managing real stock portfolios for the federal agency, designing long-term investment strategies and selecting investments under the guidance of faculty members and within established guidelines.

For this year’s challenge, the group of 11 WCU students over the course of the last two semesters has been managing a $600,000 equity portfolio consisting of funds earmarked to offset the future cost of decommissioning TVA nuclear power facilities.

The team outpaced both the market and the average Wall Street large-cap fund manager during the 2023 year, earning a 29 percent return on investments to finish eighth out of 26 university and college teams from across the TVA service area, said Gary M. Curnutt, assistant professor of finance in the WCU College of Business.

For Austin Webb, a junior from Brevard majoring in finance, participating in the competition has been “far and away the biggest educational experience” he has had so far in the world of financial investing, he said.

“I feel the TVA Investment Challenge has brought a group of like-minded people together who enjoy researching stocks and talking about monetary policy,” Webb said. “It has been tremendously beneficial to me as well as others due to the ability to bounce ideas off one another and capitalize on our differences in investing styles.”

The biggest lesson learned from the experience is that it is necessary to take chances in order to succeed, said Webb, who plans to take and pass the Certified Financial Planner exam immediately after graduation next year and join a small investment firm.

“We are tasked by TVA to garner capital gains. To do that, we need to invest the capital they have given us. As a college student, it's difficult to invest money that isn't yours. Our team was often hesitant to make moves in our portfolio due to this reason,” he said. “It is why we have begun to create a document that tells future team members all the lessons we have learned in the past. We have learned to take the chances because those decisions are what separates us from the rest and make us unique.”

Curnutt, who serves as faculty adviser for the team, said the competition helps students develop their “hard and soft human capital” in a way that will help their resumes stand out for future employers.

“Activities like the TVA Investment Challenge not only demonstrate a working knowledge of hard skills, but they also show the ability to communicate and collaborate with each other under difficult circumstances,” Curnutt said. “More and more employers are sorting through resumes looking for cues that a potential hire would not only do the assigned work but also make an impactful contribution to their organization’s culture and sense of community. Activities outside the classroom can help communicate this information to someone who may only be viewing your resume.”

Through building and managing a $600,000 investment portfolio, the WCU students developed proficiency in financial analysis, risk assessment and strategic decision-making within the context of real-world market dynamics, he said.

“Wealth management can be intimidating to get into. I hope that participating students will glean a more comprehensive understanding of investment management, translating theoretical knowledge into practical skills,” Curnutt said. “Ultimately, the challenge gives students the opportunity to develop and showcase just the human capital skills employers are looking for.”

The WCU group was among 15 of the 26 university teams participating in the agency’s Investment Challenge Program that beat the S&P 500 Total Return Index for calendar year 2023, said Tom Rice, TVA vice president, treasurer and chief risk officer.

“Easing inflation, a resilient economy and volatile interest rates made 2023 an interesting year for investing,” Rice said. “It’s inspiring to see our student investors navigate a dynamic market—bank failures, debt ceiling crises, high Treasury yields—and still achieve double-digit returns.”

The team accepted the trophy and cash prize April 2 at the TVA Investment Conference and Awards Celebration in Nashville, Tennessee.

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