Financial Planning

Financial literacy: Time to learn what we don’t know


Looking for someone to blame for the world's financial problems? The line forms to the left.

Believe me, there's blame to spare. Mortgage lenders, regulators, de-regulators, banks, analysts, homebuilders, presidents, ex-presidents, international creditors, hedge fund managers, issuers of credit default swaps, economists, Ponzi schemers, Alan Greenspan -- they're all in the mix, and no one's hands are clean.

The powers-that-be are trying to figure out how to right the many wrongs that got us here, but there's one group of people who deserve at least a little of the blame -- and who have, thus far, gotten away with it.

I'm talking about all of you -- and me, too.

All those folks I mentioned earlier? They're the ones who conspired against us, who convinced us we could bite off more than we could chew.

You and me? We're the ones who should have known better.

The SEC announced as much when it released "Study Regarding Financial Literacy Among Investors," a report mandated by Section 917 of the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010. Here's what the SEC had to say, verbatim:

"Studies reviewed by the Library of Congress indicate that U.S. retail investors lack basic financial literacy. The studies demonstrate that investors have a weak grasp of elementary financial concepts and lack critical knowledge of ways to avoid investment fraud. Surveys also demonstrate that certain subgroups, including women, African-Americans, Hispanics, the oldest segment of the elderly population, and those who are poorly educated, have an even greater lack of investment knowledge than the average general population."

So what does the SEC think we should do it about it? Four things. Again, straight from the report:

  1. Target specific groups including young investors, lump sum payout recipients, investment trustees, the military, underserved populations, and the elderly.
  2. Promote the importance of checking the background of investment professionals.
  3. Promote as the primary federal government resource for investing information.
  4. Promote awareness of the fees and costs of investing.

Specifically, the SEC says investors need to be taught about "(1) different types of risk, (2) the fees and costs associated with investing, (3) proactive steps for avoiding fraud, and (4) general investment knowledge, including topics such as compound interest."

So there it is -- more evidence that, as much as we want to blame bad guys for our plight (and sure, there are plenty of bad guys to blame), we're all at least a little bit at fault.

It's also fuel for the fire Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot is trying to light to require Maryland high school graduation requirements to include a course in financial literacy.

You can boil it all down to this: The more we know, the better protected we'll all be against future financial catastrophe.

Actually, you can boil it down even further: Knowledge (or rather, as Curtis Zimmerman would say,


Bill Sheridan