There are two big reasons that proposals to improve financial literacy don't make sense:
- It's not knowledge, it's behaviour that is the key problem people have - not saving enough and taking too much debt results more from lack of judgment and self-control not from knowing the difference between simple and compound interest. The large and growing body of research on behavioural finance shows that the main impediment to financial and investing success is the irrational decisions we are all too prone to make. I do believe it is possible to train people to a certain degree - some people being more naturally capable of being trained, just like some people learn to play golf faster than others, even with lessons. However, I seriously doubt that the task force will be going down that path (unless somehow the "skill" they define as being part of financial literacy means the ability to manage their own reactions, impulses, fear, greed, over-confidence, framing errors and all the other quirks, foibles and thinking errors identified in behavioural finance).
- It is rocket science - whenever people give out simplistic financial advice it reminds me of simple instructions for playing the clarinet "just blow in the top and run your fingers up and down the holes". Modern finance is not simple. Part of the cause of the credit crunch and financial crisis is apparently that the executives of the banks did not themselves understand the models and products concocted by the math and physics PhDs. Look at the random page below from the book The Calculus of Retirement Income by Moshe Milevsky one of the few dozen people on this planet who properly understand how pensions work. I don't know about you but I have an MBA in Finance, I have spent the last three and half years reading and blogging about investments and personal finance and I estimate it would take me about another two years of hard work to relearn math sufficiently to really understand what he has written.
Noted author William Bernstein writes in his latest book The Investor's Manifesto: "I have come to the sad conclusion that only a tiny minority will ever succeed in managing their money even tolerably well." By managing their money, he means the ground-up type of DIY investing that is assumed when the leaders of our society foist defined contribution retirement plans and RRSPs upon us and pretend that we will be fine with a little "financial literacy" i.e. technical knowledge of finance. Bernstein does propose some relatively simple methods, imperfect but much better than what happens now, but I doubt they could be adopted as public policy education goals due to their bias in favour of some specific industry products like index funds and against others like actively managed mutual funds that are perfectly legal though harmful to the investor.
So what could and should be done? First, I believe the government should undertake public behaviour modification in favour of saving more and borrowing less. A societal attitude change is necessary - like anti-smoking and anti-drink driving. Second, proper retirement income reform that considers first and foremost the income needs of retirees along with the risks they face in retirement needs to happen. I'll post more about that tomorrow.