Sunday, July 31, 2011

The NFL is Back

I was very happy to hear that the NFL lockout was over, and I have been avidly reading the sports section of the newspapers. I normally read the business section, but this week I could not bear to read the discussion about the debt ceiling any longer, and it was good to go straight to the sport pages. While attending the National Bureau for Economic Research (NBER) Summer Institute last week, I startled a few economists with my conversations about football; I enjoyed that!

There are four things I like about the agreement that was reached last week:

1) Players’ safety and health. The agreement limits on-field practice time and contact. Importantly, it limits full-contact practice in the preseason and regular season. Who needs concussions? I was appalled at the statistics about injuries among football players when I read them. These are serious issues and I frankly wonder why it took so long to worry about players’ safety. This discussion has already trickled down to college football, and I was very happy to see that the Ivy League colleges have also adopted a limit to football practices to reduce head injuries. Importantly, the new agreement provides enhanced injury-protection benefits and an opportunity for current players to remain in the player medical plan for life. It also set up a fund for medical research, health care programs, and NFL Charities. These are smart features; a big thumbs up.

2) Benefits for retired players. The agreement provides additional funding for retiree benefits and sets up a fund to increase the pensions of pre-1993 retirees. This is also a good and needed program. The career of players is often very short (and cut short by injuries as well) and it is hard to accumulate a good pension during a short career (let alone think about pensions when one is 22!). We have read too many stories of players running out of money after they stop playing, and it is important to find ways to provide for the players’ future. Another thumbs up.

3) Improvements to career transition and degree-completion programs. Because, as already mentioned above, the career of players is short, it is important to provide help in their career transitions. Players have very specific skills that can be used well in sports but also in other fields, but they need help in translating those skills or simply in being connected to other fields. Some players have not completed their college education and, given the returns to higher education, it is beneficial to facilitate and help players finish their degrees. A thumbs up here as well.

4) Sharing among players. To those who believe players are greedy and want absurdly high wages, I would like to point out there are absurdly high amounts of money on the table, and the projections are for high growth in that money in the future as well. In fact, players have agreed not only to a stricter salary cap but a new fund will also be created to redistribute savings from the new rookie pay system to current and retired-player benefits and a veteran-player performance pool. And we have now heard news about Peyton Manning staying with the Colts but passing up being the highest paid player in NFL history. This will allow the Colts more flexibility to sign other players. This is the statement Manning made: “Whether I deserve to be the highest-paid player over the next five years is irrelevant. I would rather them use the money and keep the players they want to keep and get other players.” One thumbs up to Peyton Manning. Another thing I want to remind readers is that players donate generously. Many have their own charities and are very sensitive to social issues related, for example, to poverty, education, and discrimination. Because of that spillover, I would have preferred to see more rather than less money going to the players.

But the best news is that we will be able to go see the games. I am getting ready to not only watch them on TV but to go to the stadium. As for the other lockout (about the debt ceiling), I think politicians could learn a thing or two from the NFL.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Hopes for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) officially opened its doors on July 21, 2011. Established by the Dodd-Frank Act, we finally have an institution that, as the name says, will be devoted to protecting consumers. This is an important milestone. It is not possible to live in a world of individual responsibility without at the same time having a structure in place to protect consumers. This is not just a political choice, it is an inevitable step to take when we put people in charge of their financial well-being. The shift in responsibility from governments and employers onto individuals has stemmed from changes in the age composition of the population (an increasingly elderly population) and in the increased mobility of the labor markets (which requires that pensions be portable), and I do not see a way of going back to a system dominated by, for example, defined benefit pensions. But consumers face a formidable task, particularly now that financial markets around the world have become very complex and the choice of financial products has dramatically expanded.

I have several hopes for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

• First, I hope they will set the right expectations about what they can accomplish, in particular in the short run. Protecting consumers is a very complex task; it requires a combination of both regulation and financial education, and it will take time to get that combination right. Having the Bureau does not make people smarter overnight, and—given widespread financial illiteracy—the Bureau has a challenging task in front of it. I can already envision front-page news articles the next time we will experience financial troubles (and there is trouble to come; more on this below), which will argue that despite the existence of the CFPB, we have not prevented financial woes. Having the CFPB does not mean that consumers will not make financial mistakes or that the supply of financial products will have no flaws. While the Dodd-Frank Act provides guidelines on what the Bureau should do, it is very important to make clear what it can realistically aim to accomplish in the short run.

• Continuing on the previous point, I hope that the Bureau will devote ample attention to financial education. One of its mandates is to promote financial education but, as we know, education inevitably takes time—and no one has time; no one can wait. But, as Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has said, “well-informed consumers, who can serve as their own advocates, are one of the best lines of defense against the proliferation of financial products and services that are unsuitable, unnecessarily costly, or abusive.” We need an institution that has the brains, the courage, and the vision to think beyond the short run. In this respect, the Bureau could set itself apart from other institutions intent on pleasing people, politicians, or voters, with no consideration for the future. Myopic policies are costly and these costs will eventually be paid (young people, be warned). Most of our financial decisions have to do with transferring resources to the future (for example to pay for expenses after retirement or for children’s college education), and we need institutions with a long planning horizon.

• Third, I hope that the Bureau will pay careful attention to what has happened during the recent financial crisis but it will also look ahead and be proactive in addressing potential future problems. There are early indications of serious problems brewing inside the Defined Contribution pension system. There are also problems regarding how people assume and manage debt. These are issues that emerge when looking at data, and is important to use that evidence for prevention.

• Finally, I hope the Bureau will focus its efforts on those who need protection the most. While everyone will benefit from the existence of the Bureau, it is clear that there are vulnerable groups in society that deserves particular attention. These groups include not only the young and the old, which have been shown to display alarmingly low levels of financial knowledge, but also women, those with low educational attainment, and African-Americans and Hispanics. Again, the data speak clearly about who the vulnerable groups are and also provide suggestions on how to protect those vulnerable groups.

The CFPB is an institution that can make a difference in people’s lives. I want to remind you that we are all consumers; we all make financial decisions; we all need fair treatment in the market and financial products that serve our needs well; we all have grandparents, children, and female and minorities friends who are part of those vulnerable groups. Personal finance is, well, “personal.” We should not forget about that, and we should take time to recognize that with the CFPB we have made one important step forward. It’s about time.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Teaching the STARs

I recently taught a class on financial literacy in the new STAR EMBA program that the George Washington School of Business (GWSB) just launched. This is a new Executive Master in Business Administration (EMBA) for Special Talent, Access and Responsibility (STAR) students, targeted to athletes, celebrities, and others. For those who do not yet know, I have moved to GWSB, so you can say I went from teaching the little stars (Dartmouth undergraduates) to teaching the bigger stars (athletes and celebrities).

Programs like this one are much needed and fill an important gap. Irrespective of high salaries and lucrative contracts, an athlete’s career is normally very short and often riddled with injuries. Ken Ruettgers, a former NFL player and now the executive director of GamesOver, documented that 78% of NFL players are bankrupt, divorced, or unemployed two years after retiring. This is one of the ugliest statistics I have seen. As Doug Guthrie, the dean of GWSB, stated succinctly: “These individuals need help translating their special talents and access to resources at a very early stage in their lives into the business skills that will help them elevate their personal brands into business dreams that will change the world.” I particularly like the latter part of the statement. These are extraordinarily talented individuals who were recruited for the EMBA program because of their enormous potential to make an impact.

The program is customized to fit these students’ needs, including their playing seasons (several of the football players in class are still active). Thus, it started with two weeks of full immersion in many courses in Washington, DC, and will continue in the heart of the financial capital (New York) and on the West coast, in Los Angeles. Spouses were also accepted and very much welcomed into the program, and out of 23 students, we had four couples in class.

In spite of their special talents, the group, in many ways, behaved very much like regular students. After a few days, they were wearing GW T-shirts or caps, were complaining about homework, and had found the strategic places in the classroom where they thought they could surf the internet, respond to e-mails, or finish their assignments without being noticed (we saw them, of course). There were differences as well. After a few days they stopped eating the catered lunches (too many calories I guess); regular students would never pass up buffet lunches. They went regularly to the gym, many of them looking so super-fit that I could not avoid feeling very wimpy.

But beyond these differences, they were not, by any means, a regular class. Their insights were profound and they startled a few faculty members with their comments. They did not speak a lot in class, but when they did, they were succinct and nailed a point, as if there was no margin for error. Even though they were soft-spoken in class, I could sense their confidence and determination. I admired the female basketball players’ toughness—they had played in several countries, spoke many languages, and one of them, more than 6 feet tall, was wearing very high heels!

We knew we had great potential to work with. We knew we could push these students for more work, give them challenges, and expect the best. These students know endurance, the importance of hard work, the correlation between effort and results. As I looked at this class of football, basketball, and baseball players; Olympic gymnasts; and poker players, I knew I could expect a lot from them. I also knew they expected a lot from me.

My class on financial literacy was divided into three parts. In the first part, I discussed why financial literacy has become important for each of us, what the consequences of financial illiteracy are, and why—in a new world of individual responsibility—financial literacy is an essential tool for making financial decisions. In the second part, I discussed why financial literacy is especially important for athletes: given their short careers, good planning is particularly important, as is an understanding of how to grow and protect wealth to make sure that resources last a lifetime. While most people get rich later in life (apart from those pesky Harvard students who invent Facebook while in college), athletes are rich early in life, so they have to learn in their twenties about trusts, wills, and prenuptial agreements. In the third part of the class, I discussed how these students can make a difference in promoting financial literacy. My discussion here was focused on the divergence of wages between those with and without a college degree and the fact that high school students are asked to make one of the biggest investments of their lives—the investment in education—without having any notion of this basic concept or of the basics of economics and finance. I discussed what athletes can do to make a difference in the lives of the many young people who look up to them.

For those of you who think that we professors just show up in class and teach off-the-cuff, let me tell you that I prepared a lot for this class and was quite nervous at the idea of teaching this group of students. Several weeks ahead, I started reading about the different sports played by the athletes who would be in my class. For example, I read lots about football and football players: rate of injury, lengths of careers, what it means to be drafted. Because I did not know anything about the game, I read “Football for Dummies,” so at least I knew what a linebacker is and could understand the dossiers of the athletes in my class. I read the sport pages of the newspapers and read sports magazines (I understood half of what they were saying, but there were some good stories). At the end of the class, I went to talk to one of the students, who is a football player for the Baltimore Ravens. I had mentioned the Ravens a lot in class and talked about Ray Lewis (of the Ravens) as an example of an athlete who cares a lot about financial literacy, and I wanted to tell him that I think the world of Ray. He jokingly suggested I come teach the Ravens. When I told him I didn’t know whether I could really teach a whole team, his reply hit me like a ball in the head: “Yes, you can. Because you can relate to us.” I always prepare for my classes because I want to know who my students are, what they need, and to make the class relevant to them, but no student ever told me “you can relate to us.” I’ve been teaching for close to 20 years, and it was a linebacker from a football team in Baltimore who best articulated what teaching means for me and what I strive for every day in the classroom. I never felt so good. As I told you, these people are truly special, they are STARS!