By ROBERT J. SHILLER
Published: January 17, 2009
In evaluating the causes of the financial crisis, don’t forget the countless fundamental mistakes made by millions of people who were caught up in the excitement of the real estate bubble, taking on debt they could ill afford.
Many errors in personal finance can be prevented. But first, people need to understand what they ought to do. The government’s various bailout plans need to take this into account — by starting a major program to subsidize personal financial advice for everyone.
A number of government agencies already have begun small-scale financial literacy programs. For example, the Treasury announced the creation of an Office of Financial Education in 2002, and President Bush started an Advisory Council on Financial Literacy a year ago. These initiatives are involved in outreach to schools with suggested curriculums, and online financial tips. But a much more ambitious effort is needed.
The government programs that are already under way are akin to distributing computer manuals. But when something goes wrong with a computer, most people need to talk to a real person who can zero in on the problem. They need an expert to guide them through the repair process, in a way that conveys patience and confidence that the problem can be solved. The same is certainly true for issues of personal finance.
The significance of this was clear at the annual meeting of the American Economic Association this month in San Francisco, where several new research papers showed the seriousness of consumer financial errors and the exploitation of them by sophisticated financial service providers.
A paper by Kris Gerardi of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, Lorenz Goette of the University of Geneva and Stephan Meier of Columbia University asked a battery of simple financial literacy questions of recent homebuyers. Many of the respondents could not correctly answer even simple questions, like this one: What will a $300 item cost after it goes on a “50 percent off” sale? (The answer is $150.) They found that people who scored poorly on the financial literacy test also tended to make serious investment mistakes, like borrowing too much, and failing to collect information and shop for a mortgage.
A paper by Liran Einav and Jonathan Levin, both of Stanford, reporting on work with William Adams of Citigroup, shows how sophisticated automobile lenders can be in their loan technology. They use complicated statistical models not only to approve people for credit, but also to fine-tune the down payment and even to suggest what kind of car individuals can buy. This suggests to me that many borrowers can’t match the expertise of lenders.
And another paper, by Paige Marta Skiba of Vanderbilt University and Jeremy Tobacman of the University of Pennsylvania, showed that payday loans — advanced to people who run out of cash before their next paycheck — exploit people’s overoptimism and typically succeed in charging annual rates of interest that may amount to more than 7,000 percent.
One wishes that all this financial cleverness could be focused a bit more on improving the customers’ welfare!