Friday, June 19, 2009

Protecting Consumers: Regulation is not Enough

This week, the Obama administration laid out a financial reform plan that included the creation of a Consumer Financial Protection Agency. This and the Credit CARD Act of 2009, which was passed in Congress last month, are important steps toward improving consumer protection in the marketplace—but without a renewed focus on promoting financial literacy and financial education programs, these initiatives will fall flat.

Financial literacy is an essential tool for consumers trying to navigate today’s world, where they engage in a myriad of financial transactions in an increasingly complex financial marketplace. Consumers require financial literacy to make decisions related to saving, retirement planning, managing credit card debt, and acquiring mortgage loans. The transition in recent decades from defined-benefit to defined-contribution pension plans has meant that the responsibility for securing late-life financial well-being is now placed on the shoulders of consumers. Just like the fundamental skills of reading and writing, financial literacy is a key ingredient for economic success.

Promoting “transparency, simplicity, fairness, accountability, and access,” as the White House report touts, is certainly an essential goal for any effective consumer regulatory regime. However, the mere provision of accurate and clear information is often inadequate to achieve good consumer decision-making. For instance, the Truth in Lending Act of 1968 was designed to protect borrowers by requiring the disclosure of critical loan terms, such as the annual percentage rate (APR); but in fact many consumers do not understand the workings of interest rates. Without knowledgeable consumers, transparency is not enough.

And lack of financial knowledge is alarmingly widespread. In a survey of Americans that Peter Tufano of Harvard Business School and I conducted with the market research firm TNS Global, we found strikingly low levels of financial knowledge across the U.S. population. Only one-third of respondents were able to apply concepts of interest compounding to everyday situations or understand the workings of credit cards. While many American families use credit cards and carry balances, only a minority of respondents knew that borrowing at an interest rate of 20 percent, compounded annually, will lead to a doubling of debt in fewer than five years. Lack of financial literacy is particularly severe in groups that are already financially vulnerable: women, the elderly, minorities, and those who are divorced or separated. And the less financially knowledgeable pay dearly for their ignorance: the credit card fees paid by a low-knowledge individual are 50 percent higher than those paid by an average cardholder.

The Credit CARD Act of 2009 makes important strides in that it requires credit card companies to include, in the billing statement, the number of months it will take a consumer to pay off the balance if he or she makes only the minimum monthly payment. Making it easier for consumers to process information is an effective way to aid in financial decision-making.

Simplification can be taken much further: an example is the auto-enrollment IRA, one of the initiatives that the White House pushes for in its report. Automatic enrollment in pensions has been a way to substantially increase workers’ participation in defined-contribution pensions. However, this can fall short of securing retirement needs. Workers who carry credit card balances should reduce their debt rather than enroll in a pension. And automatic enrollment in pensions and IRAs is not a substitute for retirement planning; workers need to ensure they are saving for a retirement that meets their needs and goals, an objective that a one-size-fits-all automatic enrollment program might not achieve.

Increasing regulation of consumer financial products and circumscribing the set of products available to consumers, either by requiring businesses to provide “plain vanilla” financial products or by outlawing products that are deemed manipulative or misleading, as the White House outlines in its report, can be effective in limiting the scope of financial mistakes that consumers can make. However, these measures are not enough to promote long-term financial well-being.

Consumers engage in such a varied and increasingly complex array of financial transactions that it is not feasible to circumscribe and regulate all possible actions in every possible financial area, nor is it desirable. Instead, policymakers need to equip consumers with enough financial knowledge to make them capable of effective financial decision-making.

To this end, the Obama administration’s plan deserves praise for recognizing the importance of promoting financial education: the White House report envisions the Consumer Financial Protection Agency taking a “leading role” in educating consumers about finance. Consumer protection is a two-way street: it requires not just regulation and oversight of businesses but also ensuring consumers are adequately equipped to confront the array of financial choices available to them. Navigating today’s financial markets is not unlike navigating busy roads: putting up more road signs, increasing patrolling, and restricting traffic can limit accidents but if people do not know how to drive, they are still going to crash. Promoting financial literacy needs to remain not just an afterthought, but a top priority.

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