Running Circles around the CFPB

Lauren Willis has posted The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Quest for Consumer Comprehension to SSRN.  It addresses an important subject — the cat and mouse game of the regulator and the regulated. The abstract reads,

To ensure that consumers understand financial products’ “costs, benefits, and risks,” the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has been redesigning mandated disclosures, primarily through iterative lab testing. But no matter how well these disclosures perform in experiments, firms will run circles around the disclosures when studies end and marketing begins. To meet the challenge of the dynamic twenty-first-century consumer financial marketplace, the bureau should require firms to demonstrate that a good proportion of their customers understand key pertinent facts about the financial products they buy. Comprehension rules would induce firms to inform consumers and simplify products, tasks that firms are better equipped than the bureau to perform. (74)

The Bureau has worked hard to tackle financial education in a meaningful way, but Willis is right that this is a Herculean task given the profit incentive that financial institutions have to run circles around consumers and the Bureau itself. Willis explains

the feebleness of mandated disclosures, the inherent flaws in the alternatives the CFPB has been pursuing, the advantages firms have over regulators in ensuring their customers’ comprehension, and the CFPB’s legal authority to require customer confusion audits and enforce comprehension rules. I then elaborate on a few examples of how this form of regulation might operate in practice, including these four key elements:

1. Measuring the quality of a valued outcome (comprehension) rather than of an input that is often pointless (mandated or preapproved disclosure);

2. Assessing actual customer comprehension in the field as conditions change over time, rather than imagining what the “reasonable consumer” would understand or testing consumers in the lab or in single-shot field experiments;

3. Requiring firms to affirmatively and routinely demonstrate customer understanding, rather than relying on the bureau’s limited resources to examine firm performance ad hoc when problems arise ; and

4. Giving firms the flexibility and responsibility to effectively inform their customers about key relevant costs, benefits and risks through whatever means the firms see fit, whether that be education or product simplification, rather than asking regulators to dictate how disclosures and products should be designed. (76) (footnotes omitted)

Hopefully the Bureau will take a serious look at Willis’ critique.  It is important, of course, to get consumer financial literacy right in order to benefit consumers directly. But it is also important for the Bureau to get it right in order to protect its reputation as an effective regulator that brings real value to the consumer finance sector.

Who Knows The ABCs of Finance?

Annamaria Lusardi recently posted a working paper, Financial Literacy: Do People Know the ABCs of FInance? to SSRN. The abstract reads,

Increasingly, individuals are in charge of their own financial security and are confronted with ever more complex financial instruments. However, there is evidence that many individuals are not well-equipped to make sound saving decisions. This paper looks at financial literacy, which is defined as the ability to process economic information and make informed decisions about financial planning, wealth accumulation, debt, and pensions. Failure to plan for retirement, lack of participation in the stock market, and poor borrowing behavior can all be linked to ignorance of basic financial concepts. Financial literacy impacts financial decision-making, with implications that apply to individuals, communities, countries, and society as a whole. Given the lack of financial literacy among the population, it may be important to remedy it by adding financial literacy to the school curriculum.

As I have stated previously, not only is financial literacy in bad shape, but efforts to improve it have not proven to be very effective. Lusardi’s paper has some sobering findings:

most individuals in the United States and in other countries cannot
perform simple calculations and do not understand basic financial concepts such as interest compounding, the difference between nominal and real values, and risk diversification. Knowledge of more complex concepts, such as the difference between bonds and stocks, the workings of mutual funds, and basic asset pricing, is even scarcer. Financial illiteracy is widespread among the general population and particularly acute among specific demographic groups, such as women, the young and the old, and those with low educational attainment. (3)

Because evidence does not demonstrate that additional financial education is all that effective, I take a different lesson from Lusardi’s review of survey results. The government should take an active role in regulating financial markets to protect consumers from abusive behavior and to encourage them to make good financial decisions. Financial education is no replacement for consumer protection.