Editor: David Reiss
Brooklyn Law School

May 4, 2015

Who Knows The ABCs of Finance?

By David Reiss

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.

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