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:

No comments: