Saturday, October 17, 2009

Our new Financial Literacy Center

In my previous post, I have announced the creation of a new Financial Literacy Center, a collaborative effort among Dartmouth, the Wharton School, and RAND. I would like to explain in more detail its mission and its purpose.

Individuals and families are increasingly being asked to take command of their own financial well-being. They must determine not only where and how long to work, but also how much to save and how to allocate their pension assets, when to claim Social Security and pension benefits, and how to manage their assets throughout a potentially long retirement period. These decisions were always difficult, but they have become even more so today since increasingly intricate and hard-to-understand financial products are now accessible to many people who are actually quite ill-equipped to take on the task. As a result, widespread saving shortfalls and difficulties with debt are emerging as serious challenges to households already at risk. And without a doubt, the current financial crisis has underscored the reality that, as a nation, we are subject to deep systemic risk attributable in part to financial illiteracy. These facts threaten to undermine many Americans’ hopes for a rewarding retirement.

Our goal with the creation of the Financial Literacy Center is to harness creativity and ingenuity to generate rigorous quantitative analysis and build innovative and exciting products that will work effectively in real-world settings to better identify and resolve the challenge of financial illiteracy. A multidisciplinary approach is integral to understanding the problem, so as to formulate concrete steps that can be structured to conquer inertia and to test products to determine what works best. The Center includes several strong cross-disciplinary teams that draw from diverse but relevant fields, including traditional economics and finance, behavioral economics, social marketing, psychology, marketing science, and sociology. Working across disciplines and theoretical backgrounds encourages the creativity needed to foster unconventional but potentially effective designs, to test programs and products for effectiveness, and to articulate best practice in a variety of different settings under this common unifying theme. All these steps will be invaluable in helping Americans of all working ages better understand the role of Social Security benefits and the need to save and dissave sensibly over their lifetimes.

Our review of the existing literature leads to the following general observations relevant to the goals of the Center:
1. Financial illiteracy is widespread. Financial literacy cannot be taken for granted among the population, particularly among specific groups (including those with low education, women, and minorities). This raises the issue of how to communicate information effectively, particularly to those who need it most.
2. Financial education can work. The provision of financial literacy can be invaluable in enhancing saving and investment decisions, retirement planning, and retirement outcomes.
3. “One size fits all” does not work. Different segments of the workforce require appropriate tailoring in terms of message and delivery system for financial literacy.
4. The financially illiterate require both information and help with implementation. Building literacy requires products and programs that (a) inform workers of retirement goals; (b) give them concrete ways to begin to think about how to attain these; (c) offer simple approaches to attain their goals and overcome obstacles; (d) provide timely reminders and encouragement about how to meet the goals; (e) offer additional information if the client so desires.
5. A step-by-step approach is needed. Enhancing financial literacy requires a sequence of steps: (a) a baseline assessment of literacy shortfalls; (b) the development of material and tools, including implementation steps, appropriate to specific subpopulations; (c) the development of modes of communication and delivery systems attractive to the relevant subpopulation; (d) evaluation of outcomes.
6. It is essential to integrate a thorough and careful project evaluation to fill in the knowledge gap about what works in the financial literacy.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Our New Financial Literacy Center

I am very happy to announce the creation of a new Financial Literacy Center, a joint collaboration among Dartmouth College, the Wharton School, and the RAND Corporation. The press release is reported below:

A new center dedicated to improving the financial literacy of the American public has been launched by the RAND Corporation, Dartmouth College and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

The Financial Literacy Center will receive more than $3 million during its first year from the U. S. Social Security Administration to develop educational materials and programs that help foster saving and retirement strategies over the life cycle.

The new center will be hosted by RAND and led by Director Annamaria Lusardi of Dartmouth College and RAND, Associate Director Olivia S. Mitchell of the Wharton School and Associate Director Arie Kapteyn of RAND. Each of the leaders has an international reputation for their work on financial literacy.

"Americans are assuming increasing responsibility for decisions that will determine whether they have enough money to support themselves in old age," Lusardi said. "Unfortunately, they often lack the information and skills to make good decisions."

The Financial Literacy Center will empower different population groups by developing and testing innovative financial educational products that address their needs.

Besides researchers from RAND, Dartmouth and the Wharton School, the Financial Literacy Center team includes experts in multiple disciplines from the American Enterprise Institute, Cornell University, Doorways to Dreams Fund, FINRA Investor Education Foundation, Greenwald and Associates, Harvard University, Harvard Business School, ideas42, the National Endowment for Financial Education, the National Bureau of Economic Research and North Carolina State University, along with a range of corporate and nonprofit collaborators.

As requested by the Social Security Administration, projects in the first year will tailor materials for Americans at various stages of their working lives—young workers, mid-career workers and those approaching retirement—as well as current retirees who must manage the resources they have accumulated. The center will also provide financial literacy products for underserved populations, such as low income, young, and disabled workers, who are particularly vulnerable during periods of financial turbulence.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Does Simplification Work?

One assumption behind recent policy proposals, including the new proposed regulation to protect consumers is the importance of simplifying decisions. But does simplification work and does it help consumers? The answer from two academic projects is a resounding “yes.” I describe each of them below.

James Choi, David Laibson and Brigitte Madrian, researchers from both Harvard and Yale, study the effect of Quick Enrollment, a program that gives workers the option of enrolling in the employer-provided saving plan by opting into a preset default contribution rate and asset allocation. Unlike defaults, workers have the choice to enroll or not, but the decision is much simplified as they do not have to decide at which rate to contribute or how to allocate their assets.

When new hires were exposed to the Quick Enrollment program, participation rates in 401(k) plans tripled, going from 5% to 19% in the first month of enrollment. When the program was offered to previously hired non-participants, participation increased by 10 to 20 percentage points. These are large increases, particularly if one considers that the default rate is not particularly advantageous: the contribution rate in the most successful program is set at only 2%, with 50% of assets allocated to money market mutual funds and 50% allocated to a balanced fund. Moreover, Quick Enrollment is particularly popular among African-Americans and lower income workers (those earning less than $25,000) who, as the research mentioned before shows, are less likely to be financially literate. Thus, changes in pension design can have a significant impact on participation. Most importantly, this is a low-cost program.

Another approach designed to simplify the decision to save and, in addition, motivate employees to make an active choice is the one we did at Dartmouth College (this was a joint collaboration with a professor of marketing at the Tuck School of Business, the Executive Vice President of Finance and Administration at Dartmouth, and myself). We designed a planning aid to help employees contribute to supplementary pensions. The planning aid displays several critical features. First, it breaks down the process of enrolling in supplementary pensions into several small easy steps, describing to participants what they need to do to be able to enroll online. Moreover, it provides several pieces of information, such as describing the low minimum amount of income employees can contribute (in addition to the maximum) and the pension carriers employees can choose from. Such a simple and low cost intervention lead to a large increase in contribution rates to supplementary pensions; contribution rates doubled after the introduction of the planning aid. This program was targeted to women and low income employees; in the survey we distributed among employees, many respondents told us “they did not know where to start.”

This program shares several features with other programs. First, while economic incentives, such as employers’ matches or tax advantages may be useful, they do not exhaust the list of available options. Given the massive lack of information and financial knowledge, there may exist other and more cost-effective programs that can induce people to save; in fact, simplification is a rather unexploited way to affect decision-making. Second, employees are more prone to decision-making at specific times. For example, the start of a new job makes people think about saving (often because they have to make decisions about their pension). Both the papers by Choi, Laibson and Madrian and our paper find that new hires are particularly open to making changes. Third, to be effective, programs have to recognize the many differences that exist among individuals, not only in terms of preferences and economic circumstances, but also in levels of knowledge and financial sophistication.

So, here is a recommendation: make it simple!

A copy of the paper is available at: