Asset building or debt management?

At the risk of making my blog look dangerously like a travel diary, I write this having returned from Oxford University where I spoke about financial capability at a conference composed of academics, the insurance industry (mostly Allianz), and policy makers. Oxford has a magnificent campus, and I could devote many paragraphs describing the beautiful Corpus Christi college, where the conference was held, but I will instead write about financial capability.

As you may know from previous posts, FINRA Investor Education Foundation supported the National Financial Capability Study, a project done in collaboration with the U.S. Treasury. The National Financial Capability Study consists of three linked surveys: (1) the National Survey, a nationally projectable telephone survey of 1,488 American adults; (2) the State-by-State Survey, a state-by-state online survey of approximately 25,000 American adults (roughly 500 per state, plus the District of Columbia; and (3) the Military Survey, an online survey of 800 military service members and spouses. At my visit to Oxford, I presented the data from the National Survey, administered to respondents between May and July 2009.

The National Survey shows that financial capability is low in the United States, and this lack of financial capability has important implications not only for policy but for the economic system in general. As I discussed at the conference, when people talk about financial security, they tend to focus on asset building. With the shift that occurred in the past twenty years from Defined Benefit (DB) to Defined Contribution (DC) pension plans, individuals have been put in charge of deciding how much to save for retirement and how to allocate their pension wealth. They have to make those choices in the face of financial markets and financial products that are increasingly more complex. As documented in the National Survey, people do not seem well equipped to make the necessary financial decisions. Only 30% of Americans can correctly answer three basic questions related to calculating interest payments and to inflation or risk diversification, concepts that are at the basis of most financial decisions. Several studies have argued that many workers are poorly managing their retirement accounts and pensions funds. We had a glimpse of this with the failure of Enron, which revealed that many Enron employees were heavily invested in company stock; not an ideal way to diversify risk. But DC pensions have not matured yet, and it will be another twenty years before we see how individuals have fared in mostly independent management of retirement savings and investments. Current pensions are mostly paid out by DB schemes, and even the baby boomers who are starting to retire will rely mostly on savings that were part of a DB plan or a mix of DB and DC plans.

If we want to talk about financial security and witness the impact of lack of financial literacy on financial behavior, we have to turn to debt. One other important recent change in the economy has been an increase in opportunities to borrow. Consumer credit, like DC pensions, was rare in the past but has now become available to a large share of individuals, and decisions about how much to borrow have shifted onto individuals. Consider credit cards. Credit card offers arrive in the mail and one can borrow a large amount of money by simply using more and more cards. No one is checking to see whether individuals are borrowing an amount that they can realistically repay. With sub-prime mortgages, almost anyone who wanted a mortgage could get one; banks were not checking to see whether borrowers could afford the loan contract they were getting into. I have used before the analogy of a water faucet: with plentiful and readily available credit, the faucet was fully open and one could draw as much water as was desired; it was up to the consumer alone to decide when to turn off the tap.

What are the consequences of these changes to the economy, and how well are consumers doing on debt behavior? Unlike poor asset building and asset management, the consequences of poor debt behavior can be seen in the short run. Personal bankruptcy rates have skyrocketed, tripling in a matter of ten years. Most sub-prime mortgages went bust, sinking both the banks and the consumers who engaged in them. I hardly think I have to tell you the statistics that have resulted from the National Survey (although being an academic, I will, so bear with me), because American’s problems with debt have been so widely apparent in the last few years. But the findings from the National Survey clearly document just how widespread debt is in the U.S. population. For example, 23% of Americans have engaged in high-cost methods of borrowing in the past five years (payday loans, pawn shops, and the like). In other words, more than one in five Americans has borrowed at interest rates that can be as high as 1000%. Fewer than half of those who have credit cards pay their bill in full each month, and a sizable share of those who borrow on credit cards engage in behavior that generates not only interest payments but also fees. One disturbing result is that many of those who use credit cards in ways that generate interest payments and fees are close to retirement—the people who should be at the peak of their wealth accumulation are instead borrowing at rates that are much higher than those earned on their assets. Another equally disturbing feature is that many of those who carry credit card balances do not know the interest they are paying on their balance. Similarly, many mortgage borrowers do not know some crucial terms of their mortgages. And while about half of the population have retirement accounts, many have been borrowing on those accounts, in effect borrowing on themselves.

These finding bring me to three thoughts. First, it is very limiting to assess financial security by looking at asset building only. One of the ways to help people achieve financial security may be to help them manage their debt. In any case, one cannot look at one side of a household balance sheet (assets), without focusing on the liability (debt) side. Second, we have clearly seen how poorly individuals manage debt when they are put in charge of it without any consideration of what they know and how they make financial decisions. Third, there may be another crisis brewing around DC pensions. In twenty years, when workers with DC-only pensions start retiring and are confronted with the decision of whether to take their pension payments (however small or large) in a lump sum or to annuitize, we will fully understand the consequences of the shift in pension plans. We can act now and prevent a potential crisis by empowering workers with both financial knowledge and help.

Walking through the beautiful gardens of Corpus Christi and the New College in Oxford it was difficult to think of financial crises and their devastating consequences. But mistakes can build up silently and explode without much warning. We all need to be better prepared to live in today’s world of individual financial responsibility.