Saturday, August 27, 2011

Ten questions and things to know about financial literacy

While on vacation under the Italian sun, I was asked a lot of questions about financial literacy. Rather than writing a blog post about a single topic, I thought it might be useful to answer some of the questions I’ve been asked in order to hit on a lot of general information about financial literacy. So, here is my list of the top ten questions and things to know about financial literacy:

1) What is financial literacy?
Financial literacy is like reading and writing. It is the knowledge of basic but essential concepts that are needed to be able to operate in today’s society.

2) How do I know whether I am financially literate?
You can take a test here:

3) How do I compare with respect to others?
The above test will tell you how the average American responded to five financial literacy questions. If you live in the U.S. and you want to know how financially literate people in your state are, check here:

4) How does financial literacy in the United States (or Italy) compare with respect to other countries?
We have done a comparison of financial literacy across eight countries (the U.S., Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Russia, Japan, and New Zealand). In a nutshell, the world is flat in terms of financial literacy! You can read about this work here (warning: these are long papers but still fun to read)

5) Why should I become financially literate? Can’t I be happily ignorant?
There are costs of being financially illiterate. Studies show that those who have low financial literacy are less likely to take advantage of the opportunities offered by financial markets (for example, refinancing mortgages when interest rates go down or getting higher returns by investing in stocks and bonds), are less likely to invest in mutual funds with low fees, and are more likely to have problems with debt and to pay higher borrowing costs. Overall, ignorance is not bliss.
An overview of these studies is provided in this paper:

6) Where do I go for information if I want to improve my financial literacy?
For readers in the United States, a reliable and independent source of information is One of the best web sites for financial literacy is New Zealand’s national site. Here is the link (after all, we are going global!):

7) What if I want to have fun while I’m learning?
Excellent idea! Doorways to Dreams has designed financial literacy games, so you can become financially literate while having fun. Here is their financial entertainment website:

8) What do I do to promote financial literacy and to become financially literate?
Ask for financial literacy programs in your school, your workplace, and your local library. Become an ambassador for financial literacy.
Three examples of initiatives or tools to use are here:

9) Who is promoting financial literacy? Just academic nerds like you?
Are you kidding me? Here is a list of people (and one puppet) who are promoting financial literacy.
(i) Elmo, puppet and TV celebrity (for you younger readers):

(ii) Ben Bernanke, Chairman of the Federal Reserve. You can read one of his recent speeches here:

(iii) Ray Lewis, football star. You can read about one of his talks here:

(iv) Both President Bush and President Obama have been supporters of financial literacy, via, for example, the President’s Advisory Council on Financial Literacy

10) Are there any big initiatives happening on financial literacy?
Yes, there are many. One important initiative is that of the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development). Starting in 2012, the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) will measure financial literacy among 15-year-olds in 19 countries. You can read more about this important initiative here:

Monday, August 15, 2011

No Roman Holidays

I am in Italy where, it has been said, even the statues go on vacation in August. While this is the feeling one normally gets in the summer, the Italian government, under pressure from the European Central Bank, has just—in a short period of time—put together a series of decisive reforms. Little was left untouched, from cuts that reached into the pockets of politicians, from whom many privileges have been taken, to the abolition of small provinces to reduce the costs of local governments to tax increases —including a new “solidarity fund” which will require temporary tax increases for those whose income is above 90,000 Euros—to increases in the pension age for women (a gradual move from age 60 to age 65).

This was no Roman holiday (for those of you who have seen the wonderful movie with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck) for the Italian politicians, who have used all of the tools at their disposal to rein in the deficit and tackle a public debt as high as 120% of GDP. And for those who think these are the reforms that Socialist Europe makes, I want to remind readers that Italy, in fact, has a right-wing government. For those who wonder why this was not done before, I would argue that this is a good way to use a severe crisis (no crisis should be wasted) to convince both citizens and politicians that changes are necessary.

The reason I have chosen this topic for this blog posting is that in many countries around the world the crisis has profound consequences, with or without changes in government policies. In the newspapers, the first pages are now dedicated to economic news. Long articles are written about the reactions of the financial markets, about the spreads in the government bonds of different countries, and about the economic measures that countries have taken in reaction to a severe crisis.

This is another reason why we need financial literacy. Every day we read and hear economic news. This news is not only affecting or reflecting the macro economy but has an effect on our lives. The behavior of financial markets is affecting our savings, our cost of traveling abroad, our capacity to retire or to donate to the initiatives we deem important. Similarly, the changes in economic policies are affecting the services that we get from the government, our income, our capacity to find a job or to get a good education. We need to be able to understand what this news means, we need to be able to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the financial markets, we need to be able to understand the causes and consequences of the economic reforms that governments are proposing to us. And it is perhaps in a time of economic crisis that we need financial knowledge the most.

So, while Italy pauses during this national holiday, I am writing a new blog post about financial literacy because it is a regular Monday in other countries, because many stock markets are closing with moderate gains today, and because economic crises may even bring good things, for example new and much-needed economic reforms.

If some of you are wondering what I will do with my non-Roman holiday, I will do three things: bask in the sun, go to the opera, and of course write more blogs.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Financial literacy for politicians

I have argued in my blog postings that individuals need financial literacy because we are increasingly asked to make financial decisions that have important consequences. But there is a group for whom financial literacy is even more important, since their decisions are going to affect the whole population. These are our politicians.

As a case in point, the consequences of the standoff about the debt ceiling are severe. For the first time in history, the US debt has been downgraded from AAA to AA. This could mean higher interest rates, for example, on mortgages or car loans, and thus higher costs for many consumers. The stock market gyrated last week, dropping sharply, and it dropped more than 600 points on Monday, destroying in less than a week most of the gains that had been made slowly over many months. These are serious problems that affect real people!

When politicians make decisions with such consequential economic implications, they must be financially literate. Consumers learned about the costs of financial illiteracy during the financial crisis; politicians will likely get their lessons soon, if what they want to see is what happens to an economy in which basic economic principles are ignored.

There have been a number of statements by politicians that reveal their financial illiteracy. One example: the argument that it does not matter (or we should not care) if the world is watching or what the world thinks of how the US handles the debt ceiling. This is unfortunately wrong. A large portion of US debt is held by the Chinese, and so it does matter what other countries think of the discussion about the debt ceiling, and politicians should care—in fact, they should care a lot. Another example: the suggestion that we should let the government default to demonstrate how important it is to reign in the deficit. This is strange financial decision-making. It is the equivalent of a household wanting to burn down the house to discipline its members. I would recommend trying that strategy on a desert island but not in a country inhabited by 300 million people.

I doubt financial illiteracy is concentrated in one political party only. We have witnessed poor economic decisions a lot in the past few years. Having public debt on an unsustainable path is not only problematic, but it provides a bad example to citizens as well. Not just the federal government but also state and local governments have done a poor job in keeping their finances in order.

The decisions that politicians make have enormous implications for the economy and for all of us. We are the ones paying the cost of the decisions that are made. We should demand that the politicians we sent to represent us and who are bound to make these important decisions be financially literate and explain their decisions to us in economic terms. A fragile economy that has survived a very severe crisis and is trying to recover from a great recession needs politicians who understand basic economic principles, now more than ever.