Sunday, April 19, 2015

Financial Savvy Key to a Secure Retirement

I have started to write a blog for Forbes, and I hope you will follow my blogs there. I provide the link below. However, I will keep posting the blogs here as well as I sometimes write a longer text than what is published online.

Over the last 40 years, we as individuals have been given increasing responsibility for ensuring our own financial well-being in retirement. But it’s gotten quite complex, with an alphabet soup of retirement saving vehicles – from 401(k) to 403(b) plans to IRA and Roth IRAs – and our responsibilities loom large. Not only must we figure out how much to save and how to invest our retirement assets, but we also must take advantage of a variety of tax-favored assets, employer matches, payout options, and much more.  

In my research, I investigate how well-equipped we are to make such complex financial decisions. For instance, how much do we know about the power of compound interest, so we can appreciate how critical it is to save early and grow our money tax free? Do we know how to diversify risk? Such knowledge provides a firm foundation for good financial decision-making over the entire lifetime.

To gain an understanding of the level of financial literacy in the population, Olivia S. Mitchell and I designed and fielded three key questions which have now been used in a large number of national and international surveys. We have also administered the survey to a variety of employees at large companies, to see exactly what they know – and don’t know.  

Try the quiz yourself (right answers are in bold)

1. The Interest Rate question (Numeracy)
Suppose you had $100 in a savings account and the interest rate was 2% per year. After 5 years, how much do you think you would have in the account if you left the money to grow?
More than $102
Exactly $102
Less than $102
Do not know
Refuse to answer

2. The Inflation question
Imagine that the interest rate on your savings account was 1% per year and inflation was 2% per year. After 1 year, how much would you be able to buy with the money in this account?
More than today
Exactly the same
Less than today
Do not know
Refuse to answer

3. The Risk Diversification question
Please tell me whether this statement is true or false: “Buying a single company’s stock usually provides a safer return than a stock mutual fund.”
Do not know
Refuse to answer

Our findings in the US and around the world proved to be shocking! Only one-third of Americans can answer all three questions correctly. And while one might expect that the more experienced would be substantially more financial literate, this is not the case. In fact, older adults are not much savvier than the young, despite their having had to make many financial decisions including about retirement savings. We also find that financial illiteracy is particularly severe among certain demographic groups, such as the low paid, women, and young adults. Moreover, when we take our financial literacy survey abroad, the results are not much better! Respondents in Australia and Germany do perform better, while thus far we see respondents in Eastern Europe and Russia are the least financially savvy. But all of us have a long way to go.

I worry a great deal about such low levels of financial literacy, because retirement planning requires a modicum of financial sophistication -- and planning is a strong predictor of retirement wealth. According to our research, those who plan accumulate up to three times the amount of wealth of non-planners. The data shows the link to financial literacy is very strong; it is those who are financially literate that plan for retirement. And without basic financial skills, people get into trouble young, taking out payday loans and overdrawing their credit cards, and they stay in trouble later, by failing to pay down their mortgages and borrowing against their retirement accounts.

Granted, raising our nation’s financial savvy will require costs and effort. Nevertheless, there are costs of ignorance, including not saving, not being able to retire, and being poor during one’s later years.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Three Key Concepts Every Personal-Finance Class Should Teach

I have started to write a blog for the Wall Street Journal, and I hope you will follow my blogs there. I provide the link below. However, I will keep posting the blogs here as well as I write a longer text than it is published because there is a hard word limit at the WSJ.

More than ever before, we must make financial decisions that are important and consequential. How much should we contribute to retirement accounts and how should we invest our retirement savings? Should we enroll in a health insurance plan with a low or high deductible? What do we need for our children’s education? Household finances have become sufficiently complex that simple intuition or the advice of family and friends is not enough to guarantee good choices.
There are courses in corporate finance and specialized curricula for managing firms’ finances, but what is available when we serve as our own Chief Financial Officer (CFO)? Fortunately, personal finance is a subject making its way into schools, from high schools to colleges to graduate programs. Online courses are also springing up, and some employers have started to offer financial education programs to their employees.
What should the content of such courses be? As member of the Board of Directors of the Council for Economic Education, I served as an adviser on the National Standards for Financial Literacy. From these standards, we can identify some of the crucial concepts that everybody needs to make informed financial decisions. I am going to focus on just three, the Big Three as I tell my students.

One fundamental principle of personal finance is the power of interest compounding. This knowledge is key for saving, borrowing, and investing decisions. It enables us to understand, for example, why it is important to start to save early. And we need to do calculations to see results. If I borrow at 20 percent on my credit card, how long does it takes before my initial debt doubles? If expenses and fees reduce my rate of return by one percentage point, how is my wealth affected over a 30-year horizon?
Because financial decisions are inherently about the future, we must consider how money’s purchasing power changes over time. We must also acknowledge that the future is uncertain. That brings into play two more building blocks: knowledge of inflation and risk. Distinguishing between real and nominal values is essential to keeping a stable standard of living over a lifetime. Indeed, personal finance is where we can fully appreciate the critical role the Fed and its monetary policy play, especially when it comes to low and stable inflation and its implications for financial planning.

Knowledge of risk and risk diversification is at the basis of portfolio choice. We can formally prove that the old adage “do not put all of your eggs in one basket” is, indeed, good advice. Even more, we can learn how to implement it well. Moreover, we can protect ourselves and our wealth from the many sources of risks: interest rate risk, health risk, and the risk of living too long!
The Big Three are the stanchions of a personal finance course we launched three years ago at the George Washington University School of Business. While I cannot say whether this course will lead to smarter financial decisions, students’ eagerness to enroll, performance on the tests, and comments when they complete it give me much hope.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Highlights from 2014: Notes from my travels

As in my previous post, I would like to continue to reflect on highlights from last year. One of the advantages of founding and directing a global center is that I get to travel a lot. In the Fall 2014, I travelled to seven countries on two continents. I cannot tell you how much I have enjoyed it, even though I had little time to do anything else, including write my blog.

There are many things that surprise me as I attend conferences, meet people, and make my way through various cities. First, it is surprising how many similarities I’ve found across countries that we usually consider to be very different. I was at a restaurant in an unnamed city that was so special it could have been a very popular dining destination in New York, London, Rome, or Hong Kong, but it was in none of those cities.  And while the food has been good, the traffic has been bad and seems to be getting worse in every city around the world; this is not just a feature of Rome or Washington, DC.
And there are differences that also work in surprising ways. We refer to countries as “developed” versus “developing” or “emerging,” of course with the assumption that the developing countries have a host of problems to solve. One of the things I have started to notice in the supposedly “developing” countries is that women are often in positions of command. I was invited to speak at a conference in an “emerging” country where the rector from one of the oldest and most prestigious universities is a woman and where women are at the top management levels of financial institutions. In another developing country where I attended a conference at the beginning of the Fall, the chair of my session was a very famous journalist and, again, a woman.  Developed countries have well-developed markets, well-developed institutions, and good education systems, yet women are paid less than men, and finding women in positions of power is often rare if not impossible.  So watch out young people (young women)!
Another thing I have observed in the “developing” countries is that young people get good jobs. It is not unusual to see directors and managers who are under 30 or 40 year old, and I did not get the impression that they were considered inexperienced or less competent because of their age. In many developed countries, the unemployment rate among the young is so high that I am not sure why we do not consider it a crisis. In my native Italy, if you leave your parents’ home before age 30 or 40, you are considered an adventurous person who does not understand what a jungle it is out there.
I think we may want to change our terminology: we may want to refer to market economies as either “mature” or “young” because the lines between developed and developing countries are starting to be very blurred and there is not always such strong evidence of progress—as the term “developed” seems to imply—on how women and young people are faring in some of these supposedly developed countries. 
These are some observations from my travel last year and I hope to keep writing while sitting on airplanes…

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Financial Literacy Highlights of 2014: The PISA data

I am starting the new year by looking back and thinking of the highlights of 2014. For me, one event stands out: the release of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) data, which measures the financial literacy of 15-year-olds around the world. I am very proud that the Global Financial Literacy Excellence Center (GFLEC) hosted the U.S. release of the data and that we did it in collaboration with three of the most important institutions for financial literacy: the Department of Education, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and the Department of the Treasury. While my team can tell you that the months before the event were really hectic, my preparation actually happened over several years.  It started when the financial literacy expert group that was asked to design the financial literacy assessment for PISA first met. It was in Cambridge, Massachusetts (MA), and we all felt we were starting to work on something very important. Since that meeting, I had been waiting for the day when the data would be made available. That day was July 9, 2014.

The data was accompanied by a report that was written over a period of time (hence the different timing than the data release for other PISA subjects) and that can be accessed on the OECD’s and GFLEC’s website (see  A lot has already been written about the PISA financial literacy data and rather than summarizing the many findings, I would like to highlight three main facts from these important data.

1)      There are large differences in financial literacy across the 18 countries that participated in the assessment. It is not the countries that have the most developed financial markets or the highest Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita that rank at the top of the financial literacy scale. On the one hand, this should be a worry for rich countries, as it shows that their youth is not well prepared to deal with the complexity of these economies. On the other hand, it shows that financial literacy is not acquired informally, simply by living in economies with sophisticated financial markets (financial literacy does not come in the milk bottle.).
2)      There are wide differences in financial literacy within the countries that participated in the assessment. One of the most interesting findings is the difference between male and female students. Many have noted that, on average, there are no gender differences in financial literacy. This requires some clarification. We have worked very hard at designing questions that are gender neutral, and the methodology itself (some questions have open-ended answers, so respondents can answer in their own words) can soften the differences we have observed in male and female responses to financial literacy questions among adults. But gender differences are still present at these early stages of the life cycle. In fact, looking deeper one finds that boys are more likely to locate at both the top and bottom levels of the financial literacy scale than girls.
3)      A sizeable amount of the variation in financial literacy is accounted for by socio-economic status; in other words, the income and education levels of parents matter for youth financial literacy. This is a finding that we have documented among other age groups, for example young adults (age 23 to 28). It shows that differences in financial literacy start to emerge early in life, and depend on the family students are from. This is a worrisome finding, and in my view, one of the main reasons why we need financial literacy in school—to try to create a level playing field. This is the topic we discussed at the conference GFLEC organized jointly with the OECD last November titled “Toward a more inclusive society.” These are also my wishes for 2015: Having financial literacy in school and a more inclusive society (the two topics are related, but, okay, I like to dream big!).

Let me return to July 9, 2014, the day of the PISA data release.  As I mentioned earlier, for the financial literacy expert group (and many were there on stage at the Washington, DC, event), it was a day we had been waiting for for many years, since that first meeting in Cambridge, MA.  And as the data was being illustrated on slides, discussions, testimonials, and reports, we felt we had laid the first brick of a financial and economic structure that includes financial literacy. For me, this was the best day of 2014.

There are a lot of advantages to organizing the release of important data. You get to invite and meet famous people. You get to bring together representatives of important institutions. You get to hear new ideas. You get to test the patience and ingenuity of your collaborators. Arne Duncan, the U.S.  Secretary of Education, came to speak at the event. He is a very charismatic leader and I got to interview him on stage. He sent me a handwritten thank you note afterward, and I have framed it!

Happy new year.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Hosting the US release of the the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) financial literacy data

I have not written for a long time and the reason is because of new data (only economists say these things).  I am returning to write because the data is finally out and there is a lot to report about it. I will start with the opening remarks I gave at the U.S. release of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) financial literacy data, but a lot more is coming. I am so happy (I hope there are other people in the world who are happy about data!).

I am Anna Lusardi the Academic Director of the Global Financial Literacy Excellence Center, or GFLEC. We are delighted to host the US release of the PISA financial literacy assessment in collaboration with three of the most important institutions for financial literacy in the US: The Department of Education, The Department of the Treasury, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
We’ll be talking a lot today about the importance of financial literacy for young people. I am happy that we have many members of President Obama’s Advisory Council on Financial Capability for Young Americans here today. They join us both as speakers—including the chair of the Council—and in the audience.

For the financial literacy expert group that designed the PISA assessment, this has been a long journey. We first met in 2010 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I was asked to chair the group. For the next 2.5 years, we met regularly – in five different countries — to work on the assessment. And now many members of the group have traveled yet again — some from as far as New Zealand — to be here. I want to thank that work team for an exceptional collaboration. For us, this is a day of celebration.

We are at the beginning of something momentous. The new PISA data will serve as an important tool in helping us assess how much the young know and to guide programs and policies that can improve financial literacy among young people.   

To help us understand the data and how it can be used, we have Andreas Schleicher from the OECD here. Andreas, who has been in charge of PISA, travels around the world advising countries on their educational policies.  We are so fortunate to have him here today. The OECD was visionary in unveiling the PISA initiative in the year 2000, and it showed leadership again when it added financial literacy to the assessment in 2012. At GFLEC, we are very proud of our collaboration with the OECD.

Also this morning we will hear from two speakers whose financial literacy work goes back many years. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan will discuss the PISA findings together with John Rogers, the chair of the President’s Council on Financial Capability for Young Americans.  And we will hear from Richard Cordray, the Director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and Mary John Miller, the Under Secretary for Domestic Finance at the US Department of the Treasury. The word passion has come up when they speak about financial literacy.

For most of us here today, it is hard not to be passionate about this topic. Financial literacy is critically important for young people. While still in high school, students face life-changing decisions – notably about whether to continue their education and how to pay for it if they do. Financial literacy is also important for job readiness. But financial literacy may remain elusive unless we identify how – and where – financial education can achieve effective results.

There’s no question that it “takes a village” to make progress on financial literacy. That’s why I’m so pleased to have representatives from the private sector, from universities, and from other institutions join our conversation today. I know some of them are working on innovative ideas. In particular, I’m grateful to PwC for its support of this event. We will hear more this afternoon about the impressive work they are doing on financial literacy in schools.

You’ll also hear from students as the day goes on, and at the end of the day, from a surprise guest – although it might be hard to hide her all day. Who better to motivate and inspire students than a star athlete? At the George Washington University School of Business, we have a customized executive MBA program – STAR EMBA. “STAR” stands for Special Talent, Access and Responsibilities. One of our STAR “students” will join us on stage at the end of the day.

The broad impact of the PISA assessment cannot be underestimated. It has already sparked others to collect more data. McGraw Hill Financial and Gallup, for example, have launched the Global Financial Literacy Research project, which is collecting financial literacy data among adults in 148 countries. This adds data from a different age group and a larger set of countries. I’ll be working on this project, too, and I am excited about how this will enrich our understanding of financial literacy. And I would like to thank McGraw Hill Financial too for their support.

Please take note of the title of PISA’s latest volume, “Students and Money: Financial Literacy Skills for the 21st century.” Just as it was not possible to live in an industrialized society without the ability to read and write, so it is not possible to thrive in today’s world without being financially literate. 

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Financial literacy in school is common sense

On my plane to London and then Milan, Italy , a few days ago, I picked up the Financial Times, a newspaper I particularly like, but that I normally read online. The week-end edition had a FT Money section, which was reviewing the main events of 2013. As I was browsing through the articles, I noticed one that was titled: “Cheer up, 2013 wasn’t as bad as we thought” by Jonathan Eley. It was about the UK and the author listed five reasons why 2013 was actually much better than it looked. I reported below his number 4 reason in quotation marks:
“Children will be taught about money. What was the best thing the government did this year? For me, it wasn’t putting Aim shares into Isas; it was putting financial education into the national curriculum. This passed barely noticed, won’t come into effect until next year, and will take many years to bear fruit. But it’s vital. We cannot expect young people to take responsibility for their own financial future unless we give them the skills and knowledge to do so.” 

 I report the link to the article at the end of this post, if you want to read the other four reasons why 2013 was not as bad.

I was pleasantly surprised to read this article, but it also made me realize that adding financial literacy in school has become common sense. Anyone who understands the changes in the current financial environment can see that the new generations will need new skills and these skills are best acquired in school. It is a simple argument and I hope not just the UK but other countries as well will think of adding financial literacy in school in the new year.

As I landed in Milan, I was determined to do some qualitative testing on my favorite subject: my little niece Giorgia. So after the many hugs and kisses I get when I come back to Italy and while I was looking at the new drawings she did for me, I asked her whether she was interested in learning about money. I was not even done asking the question that she jumped from the chair and she went to get her piggy bank. I was amazed by how much money she had in there. It was obvious that we had to go beyond the lesson on money, we had to talk about investment. So I told her that she should not leave the money in a piggy bank, she had to put the money at work. And while I was thinking of creative ways of explain that to her, she told me the she and her schoolmate Michelle were thinking if Santa Klaus needed help with his toy factory, an idea suggested by one of the parents.

 The morale of this story can be summarized as follows:
1)      It is never too early to talk about money to children;
2)      It is best if money is learned at school, so we do not have to spend our time thinking of ways to teach money ourselves (I do it for living, but in my case as well I would prefer to play checkers with Giorgia);
3)      It Santa Klaus were to do an IPO, we will be ready to invest. For the moment, indexed funds will have to do;
4)      The new year will not be as bad if we have financial literacy in school. 

Here is the article. The online version was titled: Five reasons why 2013 was better than it seemed

Monday, December 9, 2013

Keynote Address to CITI-FT Financial Education Summit 2013

My (short) keynote address to the CITI-FT Financial Education Summit 2013, “Moving Financial Capability Forward: Innovation, Scale and Impact,” held in Honk Kong on December 4-5, 2013.

It is an honor to speak at a conference that marks the 10th anniversary of an event held here in Hong Kong in 2004. One had to be visionary back then to think of financial capability and I want to acknowledge the wisdom of the Citi Foundation.

Robert Lucas, a Nobel Prize economist from the University of Chicago, once said that once you start thinking about economic growth, you cannot stop thinking about it. For me, this has been true about financial literacy. I have worked on the subject of financial literacy for more than 10 years and I want to use my short remarks today to talk about this important component of financial capability.

Financial literacy is a basic but essential skill for living in the 21st century. It is what reading and writing was for previous generations; somebody who could not read and write could not fully participate in society, just as today, somebody who is not financially literate cannot fully participate in the modern economy. We need to equip people with the basic skills necessary to live in the modern world and this has to start at school. I want to emphasize four reasons why we need financial literacy in school:

1.      The young face formidable challenges. One challenge is how to deal with an aging society. My Center organized a Global Financial Literacy Summit some weeks ago. It was held in Amsterdam in partnership with the World Pensions Summit. The discussion on planning for retirement was considered in combination with financial literacy in schools. In other words, preparing for retirement can be thought of as starting in school, where young people can learn the basics of financial decision making. On a selfish note, one of the reasons to focus on the young is that if they do not do well financially, they will move back in with us!
2.      Equality. Financial literacy is very unequally distributed in the population. A group that is particularly vulnerable is women. In all of the surveys I have done across countries, women always come out as the group that knows the least in terms financial literacy. We need to have financial literacy in schools to make sure women have equal access.
3.      Financial literacy is at the basis of democracy. How can we ask people to vote on economic reforms that they don’t understand? This is to say that financial literacy is not just about one’s personal finances; individual knowledge and decisions can impact the community, the country, and the global economy. We need to update the curricula to acknowledge this.
4.      Finally, we need financial literacy in schools because this is where young people are, and it is more scalable and cheaper to impart this knowledge while the young are still in school.

       As evidence that financial literacy is now considered a basic skill, like reading and writing, in 2012 the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) added financial literacy to the list of topics it measures when it evaluating the knowledge of 15-year-olds. I look forward to the release of the financial literacy data, expected in June 2014, but for now I am happy to report that Hong Kong did extremely well in mathematics, reading, and science. These findings have been just released and Honk Kong came out in the top five in each topic (3rd in math, 2nd in reading, and 2nd in science)

I want to focus on financial literacy today because recent work in the United States has tried to dismiss its importance. I need to mention to you that financial education in US schools normally consists of a one-semester course taught in the senior year of high school (and often by teachers who report—when surveyed—that they do not feel qualified to teach the topic). I do not need to see an evaluation to predict that this sort of education does not work. We do not learn anything—not math, geography, history—by taking one course at the end of high school. We need to start early and build upon basic knowledge. We need experimentation, new ideas, and the help of technology. We need initiatives like the ones I heard about on the bus to dinner and during dinner last night. And we need to evaluate them to see what works, and then do more of what works.

       To summarize, the points I have touched upon are . . .
-          Financial literacy/education
-          Focus on women
-          The importance of evaluation

You may say Wait, but these are the topics we discussed ten years ago. Have we come full circle? Progress has been made, but my message today is that there is still work to do.

I think we may find inspiration from a city like Hong Kong. I am blown away by it. If a city can find a way to grow so much and so fast, if it can build these tall skyscrapers that light up at night to transform Hong Kong into a city of light, surely we can find a way to tackle financial literacy. Welcome back to this great city!