At a time when more and more Americans are faced with an ever-expanding universe of financial products and obligations, it turns out that they are financially illiterate, the Atlantic writes. But financial education alone cannot prepare consumers to manage their finances. Regulators need to step in, holding brokers to a fiduciary standard, the magazine contends.
According to a 2011 survey by the National Bureau of Economic Research cited by the Atlantic, Americans over 50 scored poorly on questions related to compound interest, inflation and risk diversification, with two-thirds failing to answer all three types of questions correctly. One-third of those over 50 lacked any sort of retirement saving plan altogether, according to the survey. And the problem is not one that resolves in a younger demographic: 44% of U.S. students scored at the lowest scale of financial literacy, according to a 2012 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development survey cited by the magazine.
The less-educated score significantly poorer still, the Atlantic writes. While close to 65% of Americans with graduate degrees have a basic understanding of finances, that ratio drops to 19% for those with only a high-school degree, according to a 2015 study by the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and George Washington University cited by the Atlantic.
Minorities score lower than whites on issues of debt and women score significantly poorer than men in financial literacy overall, according to two separate studies cited by the magazine.
Meanwhile, those who are financially literate are better at managing debt, refinancing mortgages, saving for retirement and avoiding paying higher-than-necessary fees and charges, the Atlantic writes.
Financial education, however, is no panacea, Annamaria Lusardi, an economics professor at George Washington University School of Business and director of the Global Finance Literacy Excellence Center, a consumer financial education initiative, tells the magazine.
“Some things are better addressed through regulation,” Lusardi tells the Atlantic. “If there are things that are clearly negative for consumers, then they don’t need to exist.”
Much of the blame for the “negative things” Lusardi alludes to rests with those investment professionals tasked with helping Americans navigate their financial lives, the magazine writes.
More financial advisors have a history of misconduct in areas with a high proportion of the less-educated and the elderly, according to a study by the University of Minnesota and University of Chicago cited by the publication.
Holding advisors to the fiduciary standard would be far simpler than “educating and changing the financial practices of 300 million Americans,” Helaine Olen, a finance expert and Slate columnist, tells the Atlantic.