Thursday, November 15, 2007

Baby Boomer Retirement Security: The Importance of Financial Literacy

They say that pyramids are a bad thing, but I like this one. Today, it was announced that my paper with Olivia Mitchell, "Baby Boomer retirement security: The roles of planning, financial literacy, and housing wealth," was awarded the Fidelity Research Institute Pyramid Prize for academic work on improving lifelong financial well-being.

Here's an overview of the paper:

With the first wave of 76 million Baby Boomers on the cusp of retirement, the authors sought to understand how financially prepared this large and influential cohort is for the next phase of their lives. Using the Health and Retirement Study for their analysis1, Lusardi and Mitchell explore the links between financial literacy, planning and retirement savings adequacy. They conclude that individuals who plan for retirement (planners) arrive close to retirement with much higher wealth levels and display higher financial literacy than non-planners. Their analysis shows that planning can actually jump-start the retirement savings process and that even a small amount of planning can go a long way towards boosting wealth holdings. Their estimates suggest that those who plan accumulate nearly 20% more in net worth versus those who don't plan for retirement.

Lusardi and Mitchell further conclude that from a policy standpoint, for financial literacy initiatives to be effective in complimenting legislation like the Pension Protection Act of 2006 which was intended to enhance overall retirement savings, that a one-size-fits-all approach is unlikely to do much to build retirement wealth. They contend that instead, targeted efforts will be needed and will be most useful if focused to particular subgroups in the economy that are most at risk of not preparing adequately for their retirement.

For the great majority of working Americans, their biggest and most complex financial goal will be preparing for retirement and this comprehensive research helps to advance our understanding of the connection from financial literacy to planning activity and from planning activity to wealth accumulation. These findings highlight the need to develop and integrate creative approaches to improving financial literacy for Americans to complement the development of other innovative initiatives such as auto enrollment, auto increases, and appropriate default investment options to improve the financial security of current and future retirees.

And here's a link to the paper.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

International Evidence on Financial Literacy

In my previous blog, I showed that financial illiteracy is widespread in the United States. Evidence from outside the United States on financial literacy is no more comforting. In 2005, the ANZ Banking Group conducted an extensive survey on the financial practices of consumers in Australia and New Zealand. The Australian survey of some 3,500 randomly chosen respondents age 18+ evaluated understanding of topics ranging from investment fundamentals, retirement planning and financial records, to basic arithmetic. In the Financial Terms section of the survey, 67% of respondents said they understood compound interest, but a mere 28% were rated as having a “good level” of comprehension when faced with an actual problem to solve. As in the United States case, those with low levels of financial literacy also had low education and income. This survey also confirmed the gender gap, with women concentrated in the lowest 20% of the literacy distribution. In the New Zealand survey of respondents age 18+, similar results obtained. Some 54% of respondents believed that fixed income investments would provide higher returns than stocks over an 18-year period, and again financial literacy was strongly positively correlated with socio-economic status.

The results extend to Europe. For example, a report commissioned by the UK Treasury showed that UK borrowers display a weak understanding of mortgages and interest rates. The UK Financial Services Authority also concluded that younger people, those in low social classes, and those with low incomes were the least sophisticated financial consumers. Other researchers, using data similar to the US Health and Retirement Study, documented that respondents in several European nations scored low on financial numeracy and literacy scales.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Pacific, a Japanese consumer finance survey showed that 71% of adult respondents knew little about equity and bond investments, and more than 50% lacked any knowledge of financial products. A Korean youth survey conducted by the Jump$tart coalition in 2000 showed that young Koreans fared no better than their American counterparts when tested on economics and finance knowledge, with most receiving a failing grade. Again, a positive correlation was detected between family income and education, and the students’ performance on the financial literacy test.

While financial knowledge is weak, it is also the case that people tend to be more confident in their abilities than should be warranted. For instance, a German survey conducted by Commerzbank AG in 2003 found that 80% of respondents were confident about their understanding of financial issues, but only 42% could answer half of the survey questions correctly. Similar patterns are consistent in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia. Indeed, consumers’ overconfidence regarding their financial knowledge may be a deterrent to seeking out professional advice, thus widening the ‘knowledge gap’.

If you like to read more on this topic, please consult my article “Financial Literacy and Retirement Preparedness. Evidence and Implications for Financial Education,” published in Business Economics in January 2007 and posted on my web page. Also read “Improving Financial Literacy: Analysis of Issues and Policies,” published by the OECD in 2005.