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| July 5, 2001, Thursday
Only Mr. Charretier's holdings don't have any real-world value. Rather, they are virtual futures contracts on the outcomes of events -- like whether Prime Minister Lionel Jospin will run for president in 2002. Or whether the Palestinian leader, Yasir Arafat, and the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, will shake hands by Sept. 22.
''It's stressful sometimes,'' said Mr. Charretier, who trades these futures sometimes for hours in one day. ''If I hear something very important that will modify the price of a share I own, I can't play in my car so I'm very impatient to go home.''
Mr. Charretier is a participant in NewsFutures, a Web site that poses questions about future events -- whether sporting, financial or political -- and enables the ongoing trading of ''shares'' on the outcomes. The site also provides chat rooms and forums, much like Yahoo Finance message boards, where players can discuss each day's events and their impact on share prices. For now, the site (www.newsfutures.com) exists only in French, but the company plans to introduce an English version this summer.
French law doesn't permit online gambling, so the market in events is merely a game with virtual winnings and losses. Each new user gets a starting balance of 2,000 doubloons, the game's fictive money, supplemented by 500 more each day, up to a cap of 10,000.
Each contract in favor of an outcome of an event is worth 100 doubloons when that outcome occurs and zero otherwise. Since the contracts can be traded and the perceived likelihood of the event is changing over time, the actual price of a contract rises and falls, just as financial securities and derivatives do. Winnings propel participants in the site's player rankings and can later be used to purchase gifts at the site's online store.
Among the most popular bets are those connected to live events, like a basketball game or an episode of reality television. ''It's fun to watch the real-time movement in the price,'' said Émile Servan-Schreiber, president of NewsFutures. ''This is what interactive TV should be.''
Mr. Charretier agrees. ''It is this interactivity, like a real stock market, that obsesses you and forces you to play again and again,'' he said. ''You think that if you leave your screen, something could happen.''
The company, incorporated in the United States, was founded by Mr. Servan-Schreiber and Maurice Balick, an American. Mr. Servan-Schreiber's grandfather, also named Émile, founded Les Échos, the first business news service in France. His father, Jean-Jacques, is a prominent politician and journalist who was a founder of the weekly L'Express.
Mr. Servan-Schreiber said he hoped that the site would continue his family's tradition of generating interest in the news by providing a new way to interact with events as they unfold. ''What we are doing is inventing a new type of newspaper, focused not on today's news but on tomorrow's news,'' he said.
NewsFutures is not the only site to enable people to gamble, in a sense, on future events. Iowa Electronic Markets (www.biz.uiowa.edu/iem), a real-money futures market run by the University of Iowa business school as a teaching tool, focuses on economic and political events. The Hollywood Stock Exchange (www.hsx.com) allows users to bet virtual cash on fictive movie and celebrity stocks.
The concept is a powerful one. Studies show that markets have better predictive power than polls. When stakes are high, those with the most information will have an incentive to make large bets on an outcome while those with less information will tend to drop out, or so the theory goes. Even play-money markets have predictive power, according to a study released this year by scholars at the NEC Research Institute, Pennsylvania State University and the Technical University of Denmark.
Even without the lure of real money, the NewsFutures site, started up last fall and marketed by word of mouth, has attracted 15,000 registered users, some 5,000 of whom play regularly, sometimes for hours at a time.
In France such enthusiasm can be expensive since dial-up users must pay by the minute for their Internet access, though the site itself is free. The company's revenue comes from partnerships with French publications that integrate their coverage with the relevant portion of the NewsFutures site and provide subscriptions and other gifts for the online store.
The site received its initial boost during the presidential race between Al Gore and George W. Bush, when thousands flocked to the site to place bets on the outcome. Except for a brief swing toward Vice President Gore during the legal battle over the vote recount in Florida, the price remained fairly steady at 80 doubloons in favor of Mr. Bush, Mr. Servan-Schreiber said.
Sports events are highly popular, as are daily bets on whether France's CAC 40 financial index or the Nasdaq will end the day up or down.
Denis Lazat, who runs SwissQuote France, a financial Web site, says he uses NewsFutures to bet on politics or to test his theories about the markets without the risk. ''If I'm wrong, it doesn't matter; I'm just glad it wasn't real money,'' he said, just ''pure entertainment.''