Do we need more financial literacy?

A number of years ago I found myself, in collaboration with Constantin Gurdgiev,  in the back of a taxi, in Dublin, with a US journalist. We were spending the afternoon taking taxis at random, with the journalist asking the taxi   his or her  views and knowledge on various financial and economic concepts.  A piece subsequently appeared which noted that so bad was the financial mess we’re in that Irish taxis were capable of discussing credit default swap pricing and the arcane of ratings agencies, which was seen to be in some way better than the usual fare of weather and football

Fun and all as that was, it does highlight an issue which is important. Financial literacy, that is to say the ability of people to understand financial concepts, is an important part of being a critical self-aware citizen consumer.  From the person opening up a bank account, through their decisions  around whether and how much debt to take on, through to financial regulators and legislators, if we cannot understand the details of products we are almost certainly going to come out on the wrong end of them.  We do not have good baseline statistics from a reputable source on the extent of deep financial literacy in Ireland.   Surveys have been carried out, but these have tended to be episodic.  There is not, to my knowledge, a comprehensive “CSO”  Style dataset on the extent of financial knowledge across cohorts of the population.

Financial literacy has been shown, In a large study by the World Bank to be associated with much greater financial sophistication in adults.  those who are financially literate tend to hold a more balanced portfolio of assets, tend to be more aware of issues around the need for proper pension planning, and tend to be more financially resilient. Given that we as a society have just come through a massive crash, at least in part perhaps attributable to a national financial illiteracy, we might want to ensure that Irish citizens are as financially literate as possible.  A really important finding from the US is that there is a non linear relationship between low levels of financial literacy and the usage of high cost products such as pawnbrokers or Payday lending.  Even controlling for socio economic and demographic factors  those who have the lowest levels of financial literacy are overwhelmingly more likely to use these kinds of products even when cheaper products would be available to them.

A number of studies have also recently emerged which trace the Childhood and young adult antecedents of financial literacy amongst adults.      Studies also show a number of possible ways forward to improve general financial literacy

Firstly, knowledge is power. The more people know about financial products, in terms of simply knowing the different types that are available, the more financially literate they become.  In particular knowledge about mortgages, how they operate and how they are priced tends to have quite significant effect on overall levels of mortgage delinquency

Secondly, there is no magic bullet. Different cohorts require different types of interventions. In fact different individuals,  not necessarily correlated across cohorts, require different approaches. Some work better with simulations, others with games, others with audio visual. A wide variety of training and educational Media are required. This is of course expensive.

In terms of what childhood traits are associated with financial literacy a number of factors are beginning to emerge across studies.  increased financial literacy in adults is associated with being  brought up in an urban setting,  being born to parents who are financially more literate than their peers, having a higher quality of education, and having early exposure to financial products such as school bank accounts etc

We can’t do much about where people are born, or to whom they are born.  but we can encourage children to engage with financial products from an early age. Engaging with financial products comes about in two ways. 1 really important issue is that children have earned money.  the second element is that this earned money is then saved or otherwise invested.  Herein lies the problem in Ireland.  in an environment where the employment situation is only now recovering huge lower second level children will be engaged in meaningful paid employment of any level.  in that context  all week and then do is to try to operationalize the second part.   we need to encourage the banks and credit unions to go into schools and to open accounts.  well many people will bark at the idea of exposing tender children to bankers at an early age this may well be something we have to get over.

It would also be useful were the central statistics office to be mandated, and resourced, to run annual surveys on financial literacy.  doing so would result in the relatively short term in the creation of a longitudinal database which could be used to track the evolution of financial literacy.   we have excellent data on a wide and  bewildering variety of agricultural phenomena.  we have much less on issues like this,  which have immediate and ongoing effects and implications for the human population.

Published as a column in Irish Examiner


5 thoughts on “Do we need more financial literacy?

  1. shrey14072000

    This was a great article regarding financial literacy; one that I really enjoyed. Allow me to introduce myself: I’m a 15 year old with a blog on finance and economics at Please check it out and follow my WordPress blog if you liked my articles!

  2. mike flannelly

    The Financial Literate Professionals that you want to send into Irish Schools sold debt products to bank customers that were “Not Fit For Purpose” between 2005 and 2009 while paying themselves % bonus payments.
    Your Financial Literate Professionals have written down Land Banks Values by 90%, Apartments Values by 65% and House Values by 55% while not returning any of their unfair false value bonus/ pension gain .
    2015 Bankers are still the same 2007 Bankers. You couldnt let these people that sold ” Not Fit For Purpose Products” into our schools to give financial literacy advice.
    A 2015 Irish variable rate mortgage is a NAME YOUR OWN BANKING PROFIT product for failed bankers and a 4,000 euro yearly charge on bank customers. Bad Will.
    Send in German and French Bankers that have 25 yr Fixed mortgages @ 2.75% . These products give bank customers a product that is “Fit for Purpose”and would be more reflective of Real Value Banking.
    We should not have to accept Low Standard Bad Will Banking just because we are Irish. 1916 must have some meaning.
    You couldnt inflict Low Standards on the next generation just because this generation of politicians, journalists and economists are too cowardly to shout STOP.
    I agree that we need to teach our children financial literacy but lets start with our highly paid professionals first.
    They need to “Take Real Responsibility” for their 90%, 65% and 55% costly Debt Valuation Failures, Causes and most importantly Real Value Debt Corrective Actions.

    Recognizing Real Value Debt and Consumer Law are the quality assurance lessons that our highly paid professionals must learn first, before Lecturing the rest of us.

  3. mike flannelly

    Great idea to bring financial literacy into schools. Weekly up to date online tutorials on managing money and general financial products including their pitfalls would be great. My response was more to do with :
    You tell us In particular “consumer” knowledge about mortgages, how they operate and how they are priced tends to have quiet significant effect on overall levels of mortgage delinquency. Professional bankers ignoring the basic principles of banking while receiving up front unfair bonus payments and pension top ups gain, tended to have the most “significant” effect on grossly overvalued mortgage debt.
    Our feelings towards bankers may well be something we have to get over.
    300,000 variable rate mortgage holders and families trying in vain to restructure grossly overvalued debt may take some time to get over the “bad will” of Irish Bankers. 1300 repossession case customers on front of irish courts in just 10 days may “Never” get over it.
    Irish bank customers and the domestic economy badly needs 25 yr fixed rate mortgages @ 2.75% that are avaliable in France and Germany. Affordable Real Value Debt for Irish bank customers. Safe sustainable organic growth for Irish banks , Irish Credit Unions or a “New” bank.

  4. mike flannelly

    Enforcing Consumer Laws would mean that Irish bank consumers would only be sold products that meet their financial needs and objectives. A product called an investment product would have to have an Investment Value from day one. Enforcing consumer laws is as much of a financial safety net for citizen consumer as financial literacy.


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