Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The new financial literacy seminar series

As December comes to an end, I am thinking of some initiatives undertaken this year. One stands out, as it is rather recent and it is in the process of being evaluated to make it even better: our Financial Literacy Seminar Series. Started last October, this is a joint project between the George Washington University School of Business and the Federal Reserve Board (FRB) with the goal of hosting cutting edge research on financial literacy. We invited all individuals and institutions interested in financial literacy in the Washington, DC, area, and because presentations have been taped and posted on the web, everybody who is interested in financial literacy can watch the presentations or read the papers. They are posted on the seminar’s web page: http://business.gwu.edu/flss/.

We had a distinguished group of speakers in the fall term. Our inaugural seminar was given by Olivia Mitchell from the Wharton School, whose talk examined the link between financial literacy and wealth accumulation. Her talk was followed by a panel of policy experts, including Gail Hillebrand from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Karen Dynan from Brookings, and Jason Fichtner from George Mason University (formerly the Deputy Commissioner of SSA). In subsequent seminars, Robert Clark from North Carolina State University presented his work on workplace financial education, a very important topic when looking at financial education for the adult population; Stephan Meier from Columbia Business School examined the link between financial literacy and subprime mortgages, showing that numerical ability is strongly associated with mortgage delinquency and default; Bilal Zia from the World Bank presented an evaluation of financial literacy programs in India; and Jonathan Zinman from Dartmouth College examined household debt and, in particular, credit card debt and the way it could be managed better. Our last speaker was Brigitte Madrian from Harvard University. She reported on some important features of default options, i.e., the fact that when employees are automatically enrolled into pensions, many of them stay enrolled at the default rate, even when that rate is a “bad” one and unlikely to correspond to a rate that the individual would have chosen had he/she made an active choice. Most importantly, the employees who tend to stick to the default are disproportionately those with low income, which is often a proxy for low financial literacy.

Different seminars in the series had different formats. While the majority of talks were given by academics, at times we had a discussant or, as mentioned above, a panel of policy experts. Even without a discussant, our audience had so many experts in this field that there always was a very lively discussion with many questions asked of the speaker. To continue the discussion in a less formal setting, we held a reception after the seminar so that participants could continue the discussion with either the presenter or other attendees (sometimes with the help of a glass of Italian wine). The Dean of the Business School would also stop by the reception to greet the speaker or meet the attendees and to hear how the School could continue to promote financial literacy.

One of the privileges of organizing the seminar series is that I get to meet with the seminar speakers, discuss their paper in depth, hear in more detail their views and their insights as well as learn about their future projects. Another equally important privilege was getting to know and work with a group of researchers from the Federal Reserve Board. They have been a great group to work with: they combine an interest in theoretical and empirical research with a focus on policy; they ask important questions and have very high standards for research. Together, we were unstoppable; we started to work on the series in August and in October we were ready to start.

And speaking of privileges, last June, I had the opportunity to meet with Chairman Bernanke. Sitting in his elegant office at the FRB, I told him about the projects that our teams at the Financial Literacy Center (FLC) were working on and what we were doing to promote financial literacy. He proposed more interaction between the researchers working on financial literacy and the researchers from the Federal Reserve Board and suggested organizing some joint activities. As a result, the Financial Literacy Seminar Series was born, and it benefits from the financial support of the Federal Reserve Board. Because the end of the year is a time for evaluation, I have to say I am very proud of our new Financial Literacy Seminar Series. And I am especially proud of being a student of Ben Bernanke.

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