Sunday, March 23, 2008

My Advice to College Students

I was recently interviewed by an undergraduate student from Boston University who writes for the Daily Free Press (the independent student newspaper at Boston University). She asked me about my work on financial literacy and debt and, at the end of the interview, she inquired whether I had any suggestions to give to college students to improve their financial literacy. This is an important question and I would like to use this blog to make my recommendation available to anybody who reads this blog or is interested in financial literacy. As I told the interviewer, college students have a great opportunity to improve their financial knowledge, and they should exploit it. My recommendation to students is to take economics courses while in college. Students do not have to major or minor in economics; one or two courses in economics can suffice to build some understanding of basic economic principles and how the financial system works. Several studies, including my own work, show that people who undertook economics courses while at school have much higher financial knowledge later in life. Most importantly, that financial knowledge does matter! For example, those who took economics courses while in school were more likely to invest in stocks later in life. And investing in stocks has become even more important now that individuals are increasingly put in charge of investing and saving for their own retirement (for those who want to read more about this topic, please see the paper posted on my web page: “Financial literacy and stock market participation").

This type of advice may look self-serving: Here is an economics professor advising students to take courses in economics! In this blog, I would like to describe not only my research but also my personal experience. I am happy today that as a young woman, I took courses in economics and finance. I have used that expertise not only to start saving very early in life but also to invest in portfolios that have given me steady returns. I have enjoyed the confidence in making financial decisions and the ability to ask for financial advice when it was necessary. I have stayed away from debt and from financial “opportunities” that were too good to be true. A few years ago, I bought a house I truly love. It is sitting on more than 3 acres of woods and every day I enjoy the view from my windows. The crisis in the real estate and the mortgage market has not and will not affect me. And if you ask me, it is good to be free of financial worries at this stage of my life.

Personally, I have always felt very proud in discussing financial matters with my father, who knew much more than I did. Recently, my parents have asked me to advice them on their financial decisions and this has made me even more proud of being a financially knowledgeable woman. I have also helped and advised several dear friends, who know little or nothing about economics. And that, to use one expression used often by my Dartmouth students, is really cool!

Here is a link to the article the student from Boston University wrote after the interview:

Saturday, March 8, 2008

How to Improve the Effectiveness of Saving and Financial Education Programs? Simplify!

If, as argued in my previous blogs, saving decisions are very complex and financial literacy is low, one way to help people save is to find ways to simplify those decisions. For example, what may be more effective is to find ways to ease people into action.

This is the strategy analyzed by James Choi, David Laibson and Brigitte Madrian in a NBER Working paper. They study the effect of Quick Enrollment, a program that gives workers the option of enrolling in the employer-provided saving plan by opting into a preset default contribution rate and asset allocation. Unlike defaults, workers have the choice to enroll or not, but the decision is much simplified as they do not have to decide at which rate to contribute or how to allocate their assets.

When new hires were exposed to the Quick Enrollment program, participation rates in 401(k) plans tripled, going from 5% to 19% in the first month of enrollment. When the program was offered to previously hired non-participants, participation increased by 10 to 20 percentage points. These are large increases, particularly if one considers that the default rate is not particularly advantageous: the contribution rate in the most successful program is set at only 2%, with 50% of assets allocated to money market mutual funds and 50% allocated to a balanced fund. Moreover, Quick Enrollment is particularly popular among African-Americans and lower income workers (those earning less than $25,000) who, as the research mentioned before shows, are less likely to be financially literate. Thus, changes in pension design can have a significant impact on participation. Most importantly, this is a low-cost program. Here is a new and powerful suggestion: simplify!

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Where does illiteracy hurt?

While the low levels of financial literacy discussed in my previous blogs are troubling in and of themselves, what is most important are the potential implications of financial illiteracy for economic behavior. One example is offered by an article Hogarth, Anguelov, and Lee published in 2005, that demonstrates that consumers with low levels of education are disproportionately represented amongst the “unbanked,” those lacking any kind of transaction account.

To examine how financial illiteracy is tied to economic behavior, Olivia Mitchell (Wharton School) and I used the questions we have devised for a special module for the 2004 Health and Retirement Study, and linked financial literacy to retirement planning. We found that those who are more financially knowledgeable are also much more likely to plan for retirement. Specifically, planners are most likely to know about interest compounding, which is clearly a critical variable to devise saving plans. Even after accounting for several demographic characteristics, such as education, marital status, number of children, retirement status, race, and sex, we still found that financial literacy plays an independent role: Those who understand compound interest and display basic numeracy are much more likely to have planned for retirement. This is important, since lack of planning is tantamount to lack of saving.

Other authors have also confirmed the positive association between knowledge and financial behavior. For example, in a paper jointly written with Maarten van Rooji and Rob and Alessie, we find that respondents who are more financially sophisticated are more likely to invest in stocks. John Campbell, from Harvard University, in his article published in the Journal of Finance in 2006 has highlighted how household mortgage decisions, particularly the refinancing of fixed-rate mortgages, should be understood in the larger context of ‘investment mistakes’ and their relation to consumers’ financial knowledge. This is a particularly important topic, given that most US families are homeowners and many have mortgages. In fact, many households are confused about the terms of their mortgages. Campbell also finds that younger, better-educated, better-off white consumers with more expensive houses were more likely to refinance their mortgages over the 2001-2003 period when interest rates were falling.

His findings are confirmed by Brian Bucks and Karen Pence, from the Board of Governors, who examine whether homeowners know the value of their home equity and the terms of their home mortgages. They show that many borrowers, especially those with adjustable rate mortgages, underestimate the amount by which their interest rates can change and that low-income, low-educated households are least knowledgeable about the details of their mortgages.

Further evidence of biases is provided by Victor Stango and Jonathan Zinman from Dartmouth College, who thoroughly document the systematic tendency of people to underestimate the interest rate associated with a stream of loan payments. The consequences of this bias are important: Those who underestimate the annual percentage rate (APR) on a loan are more likely to borrow and less likely to save.