By Genevieve Cua
THOSE who advocate teaching personal finance to children in primary schools envision adults in the future who are able to budget, understand the implications of rollover credit card debt and can sidestep complex and risky investment products.
Professor Emeritus Lewis Mandell, who has researched financial literacy issues in the last 15 years, is quick to bring these notions down to earth. Teaching financial literacy to kids doesn't work, he says bluntly. Financial literacy is defined as the ability to make important financial decisions for one's own benefit.
'I'm very pessimistic. I have been doing research continuously, tracking levels of financial literacy which have not gotten any better, and also attempting to measure the impact of educational programmes. The research gives no reason for optimism. It basically shows that students in high school who have had a course in financial education are no more financially literate than those who never had such a course. That's an indication that we have not figured out how to teach financial literacy.'
Prof Mandell is in Singapore until next week. He teaches Economics for Managers in the UB (University at Buffalo) Executive MBA programme, which is offered in partnership with the Singapore Institute of Management.
Since the financial crisis, regulators have been grappling with how the sale of investment products should be tightened particularly when investors are relatively financially unsophisticated. In Singapore, the Monetary Authority of Singapore has proposed a test to ascertain investors' knowledge before they can invest.
Prof Mandell says financial illiteracy takes a heavy toll on individuals and society. '(Mistakes) aggregate. They were not the sole factor in the meltdown but they were an important factor. If everyone makes a bad decision it can have a bad effect on the whole society. Is it possible to educate people to the extent that they will not make such mistakes? It does not appear to be possible.'
There are, however, ways to raise the chances that children will absorb sound personal finance principles. One way is to allow them real experience with money - with adult guidance.
Prof Mandell himself was allowed by his parents to invest his college education savings. 'When I was 13, my parents said - you have some money and you have an interest in the market. They called my broker, who was a cousin and told him to let me trade my own account. That was before there was online trading. So I'd call him and he'd invest. That helped me develop a great interest in finance.'
His daughter, he recounts, came home one day when she was 12, and said she wanted to invest in Pepsi instead of Southwest Airlines which was then a fast growing stock. 'She said - 'I think (Southwest) is boring. My friends and I all like the commercials for Pepsi. I want to invest all my money in Pepsi'.'
Prof Mandell told her to call the broker and to go ahead with whatever was jointly decided. 'The broker said - rather than invest all your money in Pepsi, let's invest half in Pepsi and half in Southwest.
'Pepsi fell. She lost some money but she learnt something extremely valuable. To this day she's very good at personal finance. She has a very good understanding that no matter how much you like a stock, it doesn't mean it will go up.
'I believe that it is useful to get children involved in their own finances to give them a degree of control with adult supervision. If they realise they are spending and investing their own money, they'll be much more serious about it than if it was a game.'
Children, he adds, should also be able to open their own savings accounts and have control over their spending. In Singapore, child accounts are typically jointly opened with a parent. Banks such as OCBC, however, do allow accounts solely in the child's name, from as young as five years old. Yet another avenue is to allow a child to have a supplementary credit card with limits on spending. This, he says, will teach the child to spend responsibly within a budget. Supplementary cards, however, can only be issued to a child of at least 18.
'I believe strongly in child accounts. I believe that a child should at a very early age have an account in his or her name, and that the parent should encourage the child to get into a behaviour of saving . . . If a parent can take money out of the account it doesn't give the child identification with those assets.'
Research on the effect of allowances on children yield startling results. There are generally three types of allowances, he says. One is a regular allowance. A second form is an allowance as a form of reward, for doing chores, for instance. A third is not to give a regular allowance, but to give money when the child asks for it.
'It turns out that children who get a regular allowance have the lowest financial literacy. Columnists are well meaning and often argue that an allowance teaches responsibility but it's the opposite. The ones who do best are those who get an allowance for doing chores or meeting expectations. They're followed closely by those who don't get a regular allowance but who ask for money.
'My reasoning is that children who get a regular allowance - it's like being on welfare. You're not reinforcing good habits. You're saying that regardless of how good or bad you are, I'm giving you this amount, and it doesn't tend to teach responsibility.'
Prof Mandell has been working on a proposal as part of the Obama administration's efforts to address the need for an 'automatic' retirement savings option that is safe and simple. His proposal, dubbed RS + (Real Savings +) is a portfolio that aims to provide capital and inflation protection with some upside from equities.
The default option in most US retirement plans is a target date fund where the asset allocation shifts to a more conservative profile as a worker nears retirement. But such funds came under fierce criticism in the crisis as their fairly heavy equity weightings caused severe losses.
Prof Mandell's portfolio would invest a portion in Treasury Inflated Protected Securities, at an allocation that would deliver the principal on an inflation adjusted basis at retirement. The balance is to be invested in equities through low cost index funds. 'My idea is to use financial engineering to develop products that are not going to make rich people richer, but to make ordinary people safer. They may use derivatives but to benefit the ordinary person rather than the financial institution.'