April is financial literacy month – teaching personal finance to the masses

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“”It takes less credentials to be a mortgage broker than a pimp on a street corner in Harlem…..Because a pimp needs references.”

The Economist published an article about the need to educate the world about personal finance. On a much smaller scale that is one of the goals for this blog and so the article was very poignant for me. The article is based around the works of John Bryant, who has for years been telling anyone who will listen about the problems caused by widespread ignorance of finance. “EVERYBODY wants it. Nobody understands it. Money is the great taboo. People just won’t talk about it. And that is what leads you to subprime. Take the greed and the financial misrepresentation out of it, and the root of this crisis is massive levels of financial illiteracy.” Here are some highlights from the article and overall I think the work being done is great. We will as a nation be much better off financially in the future because of it. I recommend reading the full article if you get a chance (see link below).

In January George Bush appointed Mr Bryant vice-chairman of his new President’s Council on Financial Literacy. This was launched as part of his administration’s increasingly frenetic response to the financial crisis that followed the meltdown in subprime mortgages, many of them given to borrowers who may not have understood the risks.

The council is not short of expertise. It is chaired by Charles Schwab, eponymous boss of a broking firm. Already, it has approved a new curriculum for middle-school students, “MoneyMath: Lessons for Life”. (Lesson one: the secret to becoming a millionaire. Answer: save, save, save.) It is starting a pilot programme to work out how to connect the “unbanked” to financial institutions.

April has been declared Financial Literacy Month by Congress. The need to make this more than a slogan is especially apparent this year. But America is not the only country where doing something about the widespread ignorance of personal finance is on the agenda. Governments from Britain to Russia are declaring their commitment to financial education. This month the World Savings Banks Institute, which represents retail and savings banks from 92 countries, will hold a summit in Brussels about financial education in the light of the subprime crisis.

Fools and their money

It is a “well-established fact” that “a substantial proportion of the general public in the English-speaking world is ignorant of finance,” writes Niall Ferguson, an historian at Harvard University, in his forthcoming book about the history of finance, “The Ascent of Money”. He produces a long list of evidence to support this conclusion. According to one survey last year, four in ten American credit-card holders do not pay the full amount due every month on the credit card they use most often [40% – I can’t believe it is this high!!], despite the punitive interest rates charged by credit-card companies. Nearly one-third said they had no idea what the interest rate on their credit card was.

There is similar evidence elsewhere. For instance, a survey in 2004 by Cambridge University and Prudential, a big insurer, found that some 9m Britons are “financially phobic”, meaning that “they shy away from anything to do with financial information, from bank statements to savings accounts to life assurance.” Research by the British regulator, the Financial Services Authority, found that one-quarter of adults did not realize that their pensions were invested in the stockmarket.

Americans still leave school not knowing much about money. A sample of high-school pupils aged 17 or 18 gave correct answers to barely half of a set of questions about personal finance and economics posed in 2006 by researchers at the State University of New York, Buffalo. Less than one-quarter knew that income tax could be levied on interest earned in a savings account. Three-fifths did not know the difference between a company pension, Social Security and a 401(k) savings account.

A nudge in the right direction

“The depressing truth is that financial literacy is impossible, at least for many of the big financial decisions all of us have to take,” says Richard Thaler, a behavioural economist at the University of Chicago. Aptly for someone who has built his career on the study of irrational financial behaviour, Mr Thaler admits that even he finds it hard to know the right thing to do. “If these things are perplexing to people with PhDs in economics, financial literacy is not the right road to go down.”Instead, policymakers should “focus on making the world easier”, he argues in a new book, “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness”, written with Cass Sunstein, a law professor (and an adviser to Barack Obama).

Better product design and financial education need not be alternatives, points out Mr Mandell. They can work in tandem. He is enthusiastic about schemes such as the Child Trust Funds introduced in Britain. These “baby bonds” give every child a fund that matures at adulthood, letting everyone start out with a nest-egg. Mr Mandell is particularly excited by the curriculum being designed to be taught in conjunction with these funds, starting when children reach the age of seven. “Teachers will be able to talk about money realistically, because the kids will have ownership of wealth.”

If you can make it there

One of the most interesting attempts to combine teaching and superior products is taking place in New York, championed by a mayor, Michael Bloomberg, who made his fortune selling financial information. He has created an Office of Financial Empowerment, which is trying to use the powers of government to promote both financial education and better design of financial products.

The city’s regulatory powers mean that it can crack down on firms that exploit financial literacy, and educate the public at the same time, says Jonathan Mintz, New York’s Commissioner of Consumer Affairs. It has found that many tax-preparation agencies are offering “rapid refunds” which, as many consumers do not realise, are in fact loans in anticipation of refunds. Its publicity blitz about these loans led to coverage on news programmes “in 22 states and Canada”, allowing the city to promote the message that “anyone promising a tax refund within two days is selling a loan—don’t do it.”

Another initiative is to use the city’s system of helping people to apply for the earned income-tax credit as a chance to encourage them to open a bank account. As well as explaining to applicants the importance of saving, the city is working with banks to offer carefully designed accounts, and has even persuaded some philanthropists to provide matching funds for the first $250 someone saves. “You are not just educating me, you are allowing me to nod my head and say yes, and get a windfall,” says Mr Mintz. “Financial education is much more effective when it is connected to something real that is happening.”

With Miami, San Antonio, San Francisco, Savannah and Seattle, New York has formed the Cities for Financial Empowerment Coalition, which met for the first time to share ideas on March 18th. There was general agreement that education and better product design should go hand in hand. Most big banks have started to sponsor financial-literacy efforts, if only to cover their backs. However, Mr Mandell remarks, by increasing the charges for bank accounts with only small balances they have in effect deprived children of what was traditionally the best practical educational tool, an account of their own.

Indeed, one of the biggest problems may be the illiteracy of financial-service firms, which often fail to provide the products that poor consumers most want. That, at least, seems to be the conclusion of a recent survey in two of New York’s poorer neighbourhoods. Many people were using
fringe financial products such as pay-day loans or money orders rather than the services of mainstream banks.

The mainstream financial providers are “missing genuine markets”, says Mr Mintz. “One of the open secrets in this industry is that when people are engaged in behaviour that seems irrational, often it has a rational basis.” Which only goes to show that consumers are sometimes only as literate as the products the financial-services industry chooses to sell them.

Mr Bryant makes the same point more colourfully, noting that some of the first people to be hit by the subprime-mortgage crisis were the very brokers who had sold people inappropriate mortgages. Having drunk their own Kool-Aid, they found themselves with enormous debts and no job. “It takes less credentials to be a mortgage broker than a pimp on a street corner in Harlem,” he says. “Because a pimp needs references.”

The full article can be found here.

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