Comparing financial literacy of young people across countries

One of the new tasks I have taken on is to chair the Financial Literacy Experts Group at the OECD, which has been put in charge of designing a module on financial literacy for the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). The Programme is a worldwide evaluation of 15-year-old students’ scholastic performance, evaluated first in 2000 and repeated every three years. A new module will be proposed for the 2012 survey to measure financial literacy among 15-year-olds in 19 countries (the countries which so far have agreed to participate are Albania, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, China, Colombia, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, France, Hungary, Israel, Italy, Latvia, New Zealand, Slovack Republic, Slovenia, Spain, and the United States).

This is an important initiative that shows the leadership role that the OECD has undertaken in the field of financial literacy at the international level and that will provide much needed data to improve educational policies across countries. There is a lot to be learned from these data. First, we will be able to assess the level of financial knowledge of young students, before they take on related decisions such as choosing whether to pursue a college education, in my view one of the most important decisions in a person’s lifetime. Second, we will be able to assess which students know the most and which know the least, not only across economic strata and demographic groups but also across countries. Third, we will be able to assess the link between financial literacy and mathematical ability as well as the link between financial knowledge and knowledge in other fields, such as the sciences.

The comparison across countries is particularly valuable. Not only are financial markets becoming increasingly integrated but many countries are shifting to pension systems that require increased individual responsibility. Moreover, the availability of consumer credit and the instruments associated with that credit (credit cards, short-term loans, payday loans, and so on) require that consumers have the ability to understand the terms of the contracts and their consequences. Countries in which consumer credit has expanded rapidly have also witnessed an increase in personal bankruptcy. How do countries handle the increase in individual responsibility, how much are young people prepared for the new financial systems which are becoming more global and more complex, and who are the leaders in terms of financial literacy? These are very important questions and the objective of the data is to provide countries with evidence that can guide policies toward improving financial education.

PISA data has been used in many policy assessments. Just last Sunday the New York Times had an article about the strength of Brazil’s economic expansion. While Brazil has been growing fast, the low level of education of the population (as measured by the math scores in PISA studies) is seen as a potential stumbling block both in terms of ability to produce a qualified labor force and to promote innovation. And interestingly, it is the Nordic countries (Norway, Finland, Sweden) whose students do very well in terms of mathematical ability, and perhaps it is not by accident that these countries host some of the most innovative firms, products, and ideas—Nokia, Ikea, Santa Klaus (if you believe, as I firmly do, that he lives in the North Pole).

This is clearly no small task and the Financial Literacy Experts Group is hard at work to design questions that are comparable across countries. We have representatives who come from different countries and who also bring a variety of experiences. We have not only educators but also representatives from government institutions (Treasury and Finance departments), central banks, and retirement commissions. Moreover, we have representatives from countries in which financial education in high school has been or is in the process of being implemented and countries in which financial education in school has yet to be adopted. This will allow us to examine whether the countries whose young people are exposed to financial education programs in school do better than countries in which young people learn on their own.

One other thing I’ve learned is that among Italians, one has to be careful in discussing PISA. I had hastily mentioned my new role to my father during our weekly calls, telling him that one of the benefits of the project would be a lot of travel close to my family’s home in Italy. I realized the discussion had gone astray when my sister sent me an e-mail congratulating me for joining the expert group on the Leaning Tower of Pisa and asking what, exactly, I had to do in there. We had a good laugh; this added new meaning to my father’s conviction that his daughters can do anything!