Friday, January 23, 2009

Finance and the Ski Trails

I have spent the holidays in Italy and, as in much of the United States, the snow was plentiful. It was good to be on the slopes and to enjoy the amazing views from the top of a mountain.

The Italian Alps were crowded with skiers. As some of you know well, beginner skiers are the most dangerous people on the slopes. Many of them do not yet know how to navigate the lifts and the trails, they think they ski much better than they actually do, and they are often in the way of other skiers. But ski resorts are well-organized places. First of all, the trails have been ranked and clearly labeled according to their degrees of difficulty. This information is presented in a very simple way. A set of colors and shapes tells skiers everything they need to know: black diamond (experts only), blue square (intermediate), green circle (beginners). There are no complicated formulas that calculate steepness of the terrain or statistics on the probability of falling down and breaking a leg. It is a simple system, yet very effective; beginner skiers know to stay off of the black diamond trails and experts know that they will encounter unsteady beginner skiers on the green circle trails. Additionally, there are well-established rules that govern skiing. The rules are simple, they are clearly posted, and they are taught in any beginner course. These rules are enforced; there are numerous ski patrols on the slopes in the Alps. I saw them in operation, and I can say they have watchful eyes and are excellent skiers (yes, way better than I am).

Let’s move now from the Alps to the financial markets. There are a lot of beginners out there as well, people who have never bought stocks or even opened a checking account. Do these people know when they are venturing onto black diamond terrain? Even in the Alps, it can be difficult to tell whether a trail will be hard or easy by simply looking at it from the top of the mountain; skiers need the information that is posted at the start of a trail, especially the beginners. The same is true for finance. Financial operations are complex and people often venture into contracts without fully understanding what they are getting into. Just like beginner skiers who venture onto a black diamond slope, people entering into complex financial contracts can be at risk and can hurt themselves financially. In skiing, it is very clear that those who make mistakes on the slopes can hurt not only themselves but also other skiers. In finance this has not always been very clear, but the current crisis has made it evident that mistakes can be paid for not only by those who made them but also by taxpayers.

There is another important feature to highlight, something that I have experienced many times. Everyone wants to be an expert and many people think they are better skiers than they really are. In fact, if you want to keep your relationships intact, never tell your friends and family what you really think of their skiing abilities. This is, of course, problematic because it means they may not learn about their weaknesses and limitations until they hit a tree. Even then, some may think it was the tree’s fault that they crashed. In finance, it is often the same. In all of the surveys I have conducted to measure financial knowledge, I have found that the large majority of respondents display little financial knowledge. Yet, when asked to assess their own level of financial knowledge, most respondents think they have a high level of knowledge, well above the mean. The financial crisis should have sent a strong signal about lack of financial knowledge, but some may still think it is the tree’s fault.

Now that I am off the slopes and back in the office, I have a few recommendations to offer. In my view, we need beginner courses in finance, so that people can learn how to navigate the complex system before they venture out to engage in financial contracts. We need to provide information about contracts, and that information should be as easy to understand as a sign at the start of a ski trail. And we need to find ways to easily assess and to inform people about how much individuals know—and don’t know—about economics and finance.

As for me, I love the Alps, the smell of the fresh air and the snow and the views from the top of the mountains. The descent from the top of the mountain to the bottom is so difficult that it makes me appreciate skiing even more. And I appreciate the warnings as well. They should be repeated as often as possible: Please be careful and go slowly