Monday, September 24, 2012

A national standard for financial literacy

I spent a lot of time on a beach in Italy in August building sand castles with my niece Giorgia. It was not an easy operation and required a lot of time and patience, particularly in my case, given that as I finished one part of a castle and started building another, the first part would collapse. But since it takes so much time and patience to build a sand castle, I had a lot of time to reflect on things that had been on my mind.

I thought a lot about the ideal content for a course in financial literacy. I had recently finished teaching just such a course (see my previous blog post), but it was a crash course with only four 3-hour classes. While it’s possible to pack a lot into those hours, a full-length course would provide much more time. What else could be added to such a course? What are the financial literacy topics we “must” teach?

When I started designing my short course, I searched for syllabi on the web. In browsing materials, including what is covered in high school classes, I was struck by how much material is out there and how many different courses there are and the variety of topics these courses cover. I also looked at books on personal finance (and it is a jungle out there—everybody, including people who have gone bankrupt, wants to tell their story and teach you how to be financially savvy). Some of the material I found seemed very good, some covered topics I thought would better be in a history course (for example, how to balance a checkbook), and some material was offered in the way you’d teach basic cooking or household plumbing—a lot of how-to’s that are supposed to make people smart.

I was also struck by how much courses differed, even though they were all supposed to cover financial literacy. Part of this is a reflection of the fact that we do not yet have a definition of what financial literacy is. This is a topic I will come back to in future posts, but differences in curricula across schools and states reflect the lack of a national standard on financial literacy.

I am, thus, very happy to report that the Council for Economic Education (CEE) has put together a team of experts to address this gap in the national standards. As I have mentioned in previous posts, financial literacy is no different in Vermont than it is in California, and it is not clear why we have so many different curricula in different states. A group of experts coordinated by the CEE will work together to create a single National Standard for Personal Finance. I am delighted to have been asked to participate in that work and very happy that many of the stakeholders involved with financial education are part of the teams of experts—not just academics but also high school teachers, representatives of not for profit institutions working to promote financial literacy, and so on.

My contribution to this initiative is twofold. First, I want to make sure that the financial literacy topics that are covered are rigorous and that we help students be decision makers. We need to give them tools to understand a world that continues to change. And we need to stay away from teaching rules, such as “you should save 3% of your salary”; teaching rules is not teaching, it is preaching. I also want to make sure we can use and incorporate some of the work done by the group of financial literacy experts in the Programme of International Student Assessment (PISA), which had the ambitious task of measuring financial literacy of high school age students across countries. The world is global and our students have to conform to standards not just in the United States but across the world.

This is the thinking I was doing while developing my sand castle building skills. And while I was admiring my finished work one afternoon, smiling with satisfaction, Giorgia—the little rascal—looked at my many hours of work and declared that my caste looked like “un gigante zoppo.” ( For those of you who don’t speak Italian, she said my sand castle looked like “a lame giant.”)

So, here are my three reflections:

1) Having national standards for personal finance will simplify the work of educators and help ensure the teaching of common concepts so that financial literacy is covered in a similar way across states and countries.

2) A unified national standard will likely result in the teaching of more rigorous concepts than we currently see in existing courses.

3) Never put a five-year-old on a team of judges at a sand castle building contest.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

A new course in financial literacy

I was asked to teach a quick course to our new batch of Global MBA (GMBA) students. The idea was to refresh their math and economics skills, and thus it was named “Jumpstart.” I resisted doing it with all my strength. The course was scheduled for the first week of August and I had my sandcastle-building supplies together and was ready to head to the Italian beaches. But the faculty dean knows my weaknesses and told me I could use the course to teach financial literacy. So, I put aside my swim suit and sun block and started designing and preparing for this short course (in case you were wondering why I have not been writing my blog. . . ).

As you can imagine, the challenge was what to teach to students who come from all over the world and who have different backgrounds, in particular now that our dean is set to admit only students who want to change the world. (I am not kidding, and he says this when he meets the students; it is impossible not to like him.) But I discovered that this is an ideal group to teach financial literacy to; after all, this is a topic based on rigorous and universal concepts (interest compounding is the same in the US as it is in China), and I do not have to hold back the math.

The course was structured in four classes of three hours each. In case you think this allows for little time, let me assure you that there is a lot you can teach in three hours; the difficult part was choosing what is most important. I structured the course to cover the following topics: 1) understanding interest compounding and the time value of money; 2) understanding probabilities and risk; 3) essential macro concepts; 4) applications to personal finance and macro problems.

I have had many discussions at conferences with people who assert that one cannot teach (and people cannot learn) interest compounding. I cannot disagree more. This is a fundamental concept and is at the basis of every financial decision. If there was one thing, and one thing only, that I could teach in a course, this is what I would choose. It is only by appreciating the power of interest compounding that one learns the importance of starting to save early in life or of being careful when borrowing, given that interest rates charged on borrowing are often much higher than interest rates earned on assets. Most importantly, because our financial resources are spread over time, we need to be able to understand that a dollar tomorrow is worth less than a dollar today, and how much less depends on whether the interest rate is high or low. We cannot sum values due at different points in time (for example, our earnings each year); we need to discount future values to the present, and we do so simply by applying the formula of interest compounding. Because financial decisions are essentially about shifting resources over time, we need to have a basic understanding of interest compounding.

As an aside, I would like to remind those who think that people cannot understand or learn interest compounding that we let students take up large loans to pay for their education and that we have put people in charge of saving for their retirement. It is scary to think that people can and do make these sorts of decisions without understanding interest compounding; if we do not teach them, we all are going to pay for it. I told this to the GMBA students, too, since they are charged with the small task of changing the world. Giving people an understanding of this concept seems to bring results. I will not know what my students end up doing with this knowledge yet, but according to a recent paper describing a field experiment in China, teaching people living in rural areas about interest compounding increased their pension contributions by 40% . How about that! (The link to the paper is at the end of this post).

Teaching the concept of risk was the most difficult part of the course. In the many surveys I have conducted to assess financial literacy across countries, questions covering the concept of risk always get the smallest percentage of correct answers. This is why I covered this topic in the second rather than the first class and why I provided many examples—some of which involved dealing with pirates, just to remind students that finance has a wide range of applications. Like interest compounding, risk is an essential concept; most financial decisions have to do with the future, but the future is uncertain. Thus, we need to reason in probabilistic ways. For example my income next year may be, say, $50,000, but I also face a probability (about 8%) that I will be unemployed; and, while the interest rate on my bond is set at 5% for next year, there is also a chance that the issuer will default (yep, and these issuers can be governments…). It is critically important not only to grasp the concept of risk but also to know how to deal with it. While we all face risk, there are ways we can reduce it and minimize its impact. In fact, an important component of personal finance is not only to grow assets (using the power of interest compounding) but also to protect those assets (using the concept of risk diversification). One of the applications the students most enjoyed were the lotteries; they may be fun, but if you plan to become rich by winning the lottery, you are in dire need of taking this course!

And speaking of the future, one thing that changes over time is prices, for example, the prices of the goods we normally buy (this is what the Consumer Price Index, or CPI, measures). This is a bummer, because it means that if our money does not grow, our dollar today will buy less tomorrow. In other words, to make financial decisions we need to understand inflation and what inflation does to our purchasing power. This is why in the third lecture I turned to macroeconomics, and we studied inflation and the difference between nominal and real interest rates. It was also a lecture designed to teach the critical role of central banks and why we need these institutions in the economy. I hope my students have a better understanding now of the Herculean job that Chairman Bernanke and President Draghi have at the helms of the US Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank, respectively. Given that, by this time, students knew about interest compounding, we also covered economic growth (it is the same formula!) and calculated when China’s economy is expected to surpass that of the US. Write me a note if you, too, want to know this.

In the final class, we covered many applications that were also sprinkled through the other lectures. Armed with the knowledge of the fundamental concepts we had covered, there were almost no decisions we could not attack! For example, we calculated the return on the investment in an MBA degree and whether (and when) it makes sense to leave your job, pack your suitcases, and head to school again. We looked at methods of payment and when it is advantageous to lease versus pay cash and the implicit interest rates in a stream of payments required, for example, when paying back a loan. We calculated the gain from exploiting employers’ retirement saving matches and the return on contributions to Social Security under different longevity scenarios. Most importantly, we calculated what it takes to become a millionaire and discovered it is not overly complicated (again, you need to take this course if you want to know).

There were several rewards in teaching this course. First, I could finally pack my bags and head to the beach in mid August, when the sun in Italy was still burning. Second, I felt like I was making a difference—as my dean would say— if not in people’s lives, at least in their financial decisions. One student sent me a thank you note at the end of the course that was very touching and inspiring. So inspiring, in fact, that I plan to keep it in my desk drawer and read it whenever I return from conferences that discuss the futility of teaching interest compounding and the ineffectiveness of financial literacy.

For more information, see Changcheng Song (2012), "Financial illiteracy and pension contributions: A field experiment on compound interest in China."