Monday, July 19, 2010

Some comments about "Greater Foools"

I am happy to post on my blog a comment by Nan Morrison, President and CEO of the Council for Economic Education, on the article "Greater Fools" published in the New Yorker.

James Surowieki’s financial page piece “Greater Fools” unfortunately quite accurately diagnoses the depths of America’s struggle with financial literacy and its costs to society. And without significant changes, our children may face an even worse fate than their parents. Nellie Mae reports that on average, incoming freshmen now bring an average of $1,585 in credit card debt to college.
Yet despite the extent of this problem, according to a CEE / State Farm survey, only 21 states require an economics course to be taken in K-12, and only 13 states require a course in personal finance. Even fewer require testing of these concepts. But requirements need trained teachers, and to make matters worse, as a society, we are not preparing teachers to deliver this vital content with confidence. In a recent survey by the National Endowment for Financial Education (NEFE), less than 20 percent of teachers reported feeling competent to teach basic personal finance topics. Furthermore, even many teachers of high school economics have taken two or fewer semesters of economics in college.

In our eyes, the real question is “How, as a society, can we improve our economic and financial literacy and what benefits might we see in future generations as a result?” Our answer at the Council for Economic Education (CEE) – equip and enable teachers to educate our children in basic personal finance and economic concepts in school from kindergarten through 12th grade. Why? Good habits are built early, just like brushing your teeth.

America is about economic opportunity – our kids need to be financially fit and economically literate to grasp that opportunity. As consumers, investors, entrepreneurs, and voters we all make decisions that involve finance and economics every day. If every parent, school and state, made economic and financial education a priority in schools from K-12, perhaps more Americans would be able to ensure their financial well being in a changing and complex world. Improving our collective economic and financial literacy is vital to our economic growth, job creation, and prosperity. Many in government, education, and financial services, across our nation support those goals, as they are good business and good citizenship well as essential ingredients in a stable financial system.

Nan J. Morrison
President & CEO, Council for Economic Education

Friday, July 16, 2010

Greater Fools

James Surowiecki’s recent column in The New Yorker magazine discussed the dangers of financial illiteracy in America. It is great that such a prominent and widely read magazine has featured a piece on the issue of financial illiteracy. I do not know about you, but I love The New Yorker: not only is it great reading, but it makes me dream of all the things I could do if I were living in New York! In this blog, I want to write in more detail about something that I discussed with James Surowiecki and which he reported in his column.

Of the changes that we have witnessed in the financial markets in recent decades, we have seen not only an increased complexity in financial products but also an increased reliance on the expertise (or lack thereof) of consumers. For example, individuals have been bombarded with credit card offers. One could easily sign up for a sizeable collection of credit cards and, in so doing, borrow a large amount of money. While some consumers have been targeted more than others, many are receiving printed checks in the mail. These types of offers make it very easy to borrow; and it is the individual who has to be savvy about how to use the credit cards and checks that come in the mail; the offers will keep coming, and the amount one can borrow will keep increasing, irrespective of how much one can afford.

Subprime mortgages have worked in much the same way. While banks and mortgage lenders would normally do background work in order to assess how much to lend their potential borrowers, subprime mortgages were available to almost anyone who wanted a mortgage, regardless of their ability to afford the loan they were taking on and without much or any look to proper documentation. For some, the offer came in the mail together with the credit card offer!

In other words, we have opened the doors and made credit available to a much larger number of individuals than was the case several decades ago. Moreover, while not infinite, the amount people can borrow is very large. And perhaps most importantly, it is often up to the consumers to decide what and when it is enough.

This is why financial literacy is so important and why, in my view, developments in financial markets should be accompanied with initiatives to provide the knowledge required to make good use of any such developments. One cannot trumpet how great it is to be able to buy a house at age 25 if young workers do not even know what interest compounding means. Similarly, dispensing credit cards to people who have little understanding of how fees work can be counterproductive at best and catastrophic at worst.

I have a similar view toward assets. Some have been lamenting the high proportion of unbanked individuals, in particular among certain segments of the population. I believe financial access is incredibly important, but we cannot simply give everyone a checking account and think we have improved people’s lives! Not knowing how to use a checking account to prevent overdraft fees and returned checks can quickly turn the benefits of this simple asset into a nightmare.

As we pass new legislation about financial reforms, we should keep in mind the many advantages that advanced financial markets can bring to the economy but also be mindful that without financial knowledge, people now have a much greater opportunity not only to increase wealth, but also to destroy it. As I have argued in many previous blogs, it is not enough to regulate supply, we also have to think about demand and how to empower consumers with the knowledge necessary to make proper financial decisions. We should not be talking only about banks, we should also be talking about the borrowers!

On a side note, James Surowiecki’s column was published on July 5, which also happens to be my birthday. Without knowing it, Surowiecki provided me with a very nice birthday gift by writing so proficiently about a topic I care so much about. Only a trip to New York would have made it better!

Read James Surowiecki’s column here:

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Financial Literacy Among the Young

I want to write this time about financial literacy among young people. Olivia Mitchell, from the Wharton School; Vilsa Curto, from the Education Innovation Laboratory at Harvard; and I have just published a paper in the Journal of Consumer Affairs that describes the results from the responses to three questions that we added to the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth in 2007-2008. Respondents to this survey are 23-28 years old.

These young consumers must confront complicated financial decisions in today’s demanding financial environment, and financial mistakes made early in life can be costly. Young people often find themselves carrying large amounts of student loan or credit card debt, and such early entanglements can hinder their ability to accumulate wealth or to choose their desired job. To examine how well equipped young people are to make financial decisions, we assessed knowledge of basic concepts: the ability to do a 2% calculation and the understanding of how inflation and risk diversification work.

We have three major findings:

1. Financial literacy is low among young adults. Only 27% of people age 23-28 can answer three basic questions about interest rates, inflation, and risk diversification.
2. There are large gender differences in financial literacy. Young women know much less than do young men about basic financial concepts. In another survey, we found large gender gaps in financial literacy among older respondents (51 and older), and this recent work tells us that these differences hold when we look at young people.
3. Financial literacy is influenced by parents. Those who are financially literate are more likely to have college-educated parents (in particular, college-educated mothers) and to have parents who had stocks and retirement savings when these young adults were growing up (when they were 12 to 17 years old).

I want to stress the third finding: family background is found to have a strong impact on financial literacy. A college-educated male whose parents had stocks and retirement savings when he was a teenager was about 45 percentage points more likely to know about risk diversification than a female with less than a high school education whose parents did not own retirement or risky assets. In other words, financial knowledge appears to be much higher for those who grow up with parents who are financially sophisticated.

This research is consistent with the findings from the Financial Capability Survey, the results of which were released last December by Secretary Geithner together with Secretary Duncan. That survey also documents very low levels of financial knowledge, particularly among the young.

These are unpleasant findings. We have put people in charge of many important financial decisions. People must decide how much to save for retirement and how to invest that savings, yet people do not appear to understand how to diversify risk; individuals are bombarded with credit card offers, yet we are learning that many people do not know how compound interest works, so cannot calculate how their debt will grow. Research has shown that financial illiteracy can be linked to problems with debt, lack of participation in the stock market, lack of retirement planning, and lower wealth accumulation. If we do not address financial illiteracy among young people and if we do not equip young people with the tools they need to make sound financial decisions, we may pay the cost down the road.

I am worried about the implications of these findings. If financial literacy is learned at home, many young people will begin their lives at a disadvantage, as not everybody comes from a college educated family or from a family that has stocks and retirement savings. In other words, inequality may start at the very beginning of the economic life if we do not offer everybody an opportunity to learn financial literacy outside of their homes. This is one reason why it is important that our schools incorporate financial literacy into their curricula.

In my work as a college professor, I am surrounded by young people. Last month, as we bid farewell to the Dartmouth class of 2010, I could not help but wonder whether we have provided all that is needed for these students to start on their journey into adulthood. Most of them will start a job, open a new bank account, rent an apartment, get more credit cards, pay down their student loans, donate to their college (ahem . . .), and pay taxes. Are they ready?

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Proposals, Pizza Boxes, and Prilosec

I have not written for a while, but now—after a month and a half of grueling work—am able to turn attention to my blog, having just finalized the submission of a multi-project proposal for the second year of funding for the Financial Literacy Center.

Every year at around this time, we have to collect our best projects and ideas and submit them to our funder, Social Security. There are many valuable aspects of this process. First, it forces us to think hard about the many ongoing projects and the new ideas we have been compiling with input from our teams and then evaluate the most promising ones to submit for funding. It makes us think about the future and about the type of work we’d like to engage in over the next year.

Second, it forces us to be specific about what we want to pursue. This is the time when we need to transform ideas, conjectures, even dreams, into concrete plans that have to be described in detail, thinking not just about the outcomes we want but the manner in which we plan to achieve them.

Third, it gives us the opportunity to form new partnerships. Several of our proposed projects have become multi-disciplinary, with psychologists, linguists, and law scholars collaborating with economists. And co-authors from existing projects are brought in to add their experience and insight to newly proposed projects.

But for those of you who have never dealt or submitted a grant, let me tell you that despite all of the good that comes of it, the process is grueling and the work is massive. There are strict procedures to be followed, a vast amount of documentation to be provided, deadlines to be met, and, if more than one team is involved, a lot of people to coordinate. On a scale from 1 to 10 of the unpleasant things one might do, this is probably an 8, right up there with a root canal or training for the Tour de France after major surgery.

As the submission deadline approached last week, I looked dangerously like my students on the day of a final exam: my hair uncombed, coffee cups and empty pizza boxes piling up on my desk, mail unopened, and email clogging up my inbox. Staying late at my desk, I startled more than one security guard patrolling the building to shut off the lights late at night. And, of course, the sure indicator of a grueling grant submittal period: regular doses of Prilosec after week two of the process.

Truth be told, I have gotten much better at writing grants. My first grant submissions, which I wrote with no understanding that I was competing with the giants in my field, I have to say were not received with great enthusiasm. In some cases, my submission did not even merit consideration among the proposals to be funded; in others I received rejections complemented by letters from referees who had a lot of not very friendly things to say about my research ideas. The ones I have the fondest memories of are those in which I was told I was not quite there, and was invited to re-submit. I did that, adding another two or three weeks of work (and medication), and—bingo!—I was rejected after the resubmission!

Grants have became a part of my academic life, as I need support for big projects—to hire assistants, to pay for data, and to do empirical research. Not many institutions had the stomach to fund research on financial literacy when I started working on it many years ago, and I am very happy that Social Security has been a funder and a supporter of my work from the very beginning. I will probably be collecting Social Security benefits by the time I publish this work, so I can say that Social Security has been and will be a constant in my life.

But now the submission is over; I can go back to a healthy diet and to a normal intake of coffee. I will again think positively about the future. And I am very busy catching up on sleep.