At the Wharton conference that I described in my previous blog, I sat down with Michelle Greene for an interview with Knowledge@Wharton. The link to the interview is provided below, but in this blog I wanted to discuss a few topics that have come up many times in this and other discussions.
In case you do not know Michelle, she is the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Financial Education and Financial Access at the U.S. Treasury Department. The title may look long, and it is for a good reason: she heads the office at Treasury which is in charge of financial literacy and financial education. One of the issues that office has to deal with is that many Americans are unbanked or underbanked and do not participate in traditional financial markets, hence the attention to financial access in addition to financial literacy.
Many people have asked me why financial literacy is so low and why we appear to be getting worse in terms of financial knowledge. In my view, it is not the case that financial knowledge has worsened, rather that the world has changed. Individuals have been put in charge of decisions that were—in the past—the responsibility of employers or the government (such as determining how much to put aside for retirement and how to manage pension wealth). Individuals have to make these decisions while facing much more complex financial markets. For example, ETFs, REITS, and 403(b)s were not in vogue twenty years ago and yet, while the acronyms are not exactly appealing, they have become part of what an average worker has to deal with in their financial planning. In the past, a CFO with an MBA in finance was making decisions about how to allocate investments in order that the company be able to pay a pension to the firms' employees; now workers John and Jane Doe are in charge of making these decisions. This means that every single worker now has to spend time and effort in collecting information and searching for the best conditions.
Given these changes, it may be obvious why the office that Michelle Greene heads is so important: we need to equip people with the tools to make financial decisions and increase financial knowledge if we are asking them to be in charge of their financial well-being after retirement. But, it is not enough to put them in charge. These are difficult decisions—even for a CFO with adequate training—and we cannot expect the average worker to navigate the financial markets if he/she does not know the difference between a bond and a stock or what an annuity is.
As Michelle stated in the interview, if there is a silver lining to the financial crisis, it is that there is a renewed sense among people that they need to understand their own finances. They need to engage in better behaviors and think more about the future. The financial crisis has also taught us the cost of financial mistakes. While we have not yet witnessed what may happen if workers with defined contribution pensions accumulate too little for retirement or make bad decisions on how to draw down the money from their retirement accounts, we have seen that choosing the wrong mortgage can end with the sheriff at the door and the furniture for sale on the lawn.
Michelle also spoke of the importance of starting to learn and to save when young and the need for inserting financial education into our schools. In my view, this is critically important as people need to have a basis on which to build their financial knowledge. Schools cannot teach every concept that will be of importance for making financial decisions in the future. But they can make people appreciate the importance of financial knowledge and the need to build on it over time. I am often asked what we should teach in high school to improve financial knowledge and my short answer is that we should teach people to be curious and to be interested in financial literacy. We do not teach literature expecting students to write the next War and Peace but rather to appreciate a good book. Similarly, we should teach financial literacy so that students appreciate the need to be informed before making financial decisions.
I want to end by saying that I am extremely proud of the work that Michelle is doing. Her work can and is having an impact on the lives of people, on the decisions that John and Jane Doe have to face—decisions that are part of a very different system than the one encountered by previous generations. There is a lot at stake here, and I hope that people will realize that inside the gray and imposing Treasury building alongside the White House, there is an office devoted to improving financial literacy and financial access.