Monday, March 14, 2011

Financial fragility

I mentioned in my previous blog post the importance of having a buffer stock of savings. I would like to continue to discuss what individuals actually have or can rely on in case they are hit by a shock. This is part of a new research project, which is joint work with Peter Tufano of Harvard Business School and Daniel Schneider, a sociologist who is finishing his Ph.D. at Princeton University.

We engaged the market research firm TNS Global and collaborated with them to design a new survey that was fielded in June–September 2009. Specifically, we ask respondents: “How confident are you that you could come up with $2,000 if an unexpected need arose within the next month?” Respondents could reply:

• I am certain I could come up with the full $2,000
• I could probably come up with $2,000
• I could probably not come up with $2,000
• I am certain I could not come up with $2,000

Because we are dealing with an unexpected event in the future, it is important to ask about confidence rather than ask a yes or no question. The $2,000 figure reflects the order of magnitude of the cost of a major car repair, a large co-payment on a medical expense, legal expenses, or a home repair.

The news is not good: The capacity to cope with financial emergencies is very limited. Half of Americans report that they would probably or certainly be unable to cope with such an emergency. More specifically: 24.9% of respondents reported being certainly able to cope; 25.1% probably able to cope; 22.2% probably unable to cope; and 27.9% certainly unable to cope.

The capacity to cope with a financial emergency is not only generally limited but also varies significantly with the economic and demographic characteristics of individuals and their households. While those with higher income and greater educational attainment report greater capacity to cope, a large proportion of individuals with middle-class incomes report they are certainly not or probably not able to cope. Moreover, even among those with some higher education, more than half reply that they would be certainly or probably not able to cope. In other words, while inability to cope is severe among the less educated and low-income groups, it is not limited to the poor or to a small group of the population. Similarly, while financial fragility is more pronounced among the young, many older respondents, who are presumably close to retirement and at a point in life when their wealth accumulation should be at its peak, report anticipating difficulty in coping with a financial a shock. And women and families with children are less likely to be able to cope with shocks.

The financial crisis is a clear contributor to financial fragility, although not the only one. Those who suffered wealth losses, particularly large losses in excess of 30%, report greater inability to cope. This may explain why even some wealthy people anticipate potential inability to cope with a shock—likely due to lowered wealth in conjunction with high fixed costs and inflexible commitments The unemployed are also much more financially fragile, with just about one-third reporting they would certainly or probably be able to cope and 41.2% reporting they would certainly be unable to cope.

This is a worrisome finding as it shows that individuals and the economy are fragile to shocks. Many policies have so far focused on promoting asset building for the long run. It may be useful to start considering the short run as well.

I am presenting this work at the Brookings Institution this week, and I will keep discussing more findings and the potential implications of this work. Please send me your comments, too.

The Huffington Post featured this paper on their web and asked to share your story. Here is the link: