Category Archives: Financial Literacy

About Retirement Saving and the Florida Retirement System, Part 2

Continued from Part 1

John Mauldin published an article yesterday in Forbes about the coming public pension crisis. Many states and local governments do not have enough funds to pay future benefits, let alone current benefits, and spending on education and public works is being curtailed due to these shortfalls.

In Florida, the pension crisis is not much of an issue because the Florida Retirement System (FRS) is 84% funded based on actuarial projections ($161 billion of assets) and offers a separate, paltry monthly stipend for medical expenses rather than the generous health benefits offered by many other states. In 2011, the FRS also devalued the program in the following ways:

  • New 3.0% payroll deduction (formerly none)
  • State contributes 3.3% to DC plan (formerly 9.0%)
  • DB vesting period: 5 -> 8 years
  • DB salary lookback period: 5 -> 8 years
  • Full DB benefits 33 years / Age 65 (formerly 30 / 62)
  • DB inflation adjustment removed (formerly 3.0% / year)
  • Deferred Retirement Option Program (DROP) participants earn only 1.3% instead of 6.5% APY on deferred benefits

These 2011 changes continue today despite booming stock market returns. Although they did not affect employees who retired before July 1, 2011, employees who started after this date are fully affected by all of the above, and existing employees are still affected by the inflation adjustment removal for work credits earned after July 1, 2011, as well as having to contribute 3% of salary. There are 643,333 working members in FRS as of June 30, 2018, and 1,210,795 total members including retirees and terminated members who can expect benefits in retirement. These include teachers and other public employees such as police officers, city and county workers, higher education, et cetera, although school districts are the largest component of active membership with 314,001 members (49%). (Source: Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports)

There was a time before the Great Recession where the FRS was more than 100% funded even with the previous, more generous benefits. For it to be 84% funded now is quite good compared with pension systems in other states, but still wanting considering we are potentially at the apex of a 10-year economic expansion. As with most pension plans, the majority of FRS assets (80%) are in high-risk assets such as stocks, real estate, and private equity. Although these risky assets are advisable to invest in as growth will be higher in the long run as compared with safe assets like U.S. Treasury bonds, near-term risks are high. If there is another recession the FRS pension trust fund might go from 84% to 60% funded. The 2011 devaluation was used as an opportunity for the state to contribute less—if they would have kept up their contribution levels the trust fund would be over 100% funded now. For example, the 3% payroll deduction was taken as an opportunity for state and local governments to reduce their contribution rates.

Like life insurance, a pension plan puts a metaphorical bounty on members’ heads. Financially, the best thing that can happen to a life insurance company is for all policyholders to outlive their policies’ end dates; the best thing that can happen to a pension fund is for everyone to die off before receiving benefits. With a defined-contribution retirement account like a 401(k), assets pass to a spouse or children at death, but pension benefits do not generally function like this (although survivor benefits may be offered, they are usually small in comparison). Of course, the state is not going to go on a killing spree to save on pension costs, but conceptually the perverse incentives created by a lifetime payment scheme are entertaining to ponder.

With Social Security benefits, Americans are directly presented with a macabre choice—deciding whether to receive benefits at 62, 67, or 70. Waiting until 67 or 70 results in higher total payouts if one lives to about 83 or older. Of course, someone who is delaying to 70 who ends up dying at 69 would have been better served by starting the payouts at age 62. This is basically the vesting problem in reverse. The FRS, like many pension plans, requires workers to attain eight years of service to get a pension benefit; otherwise, the employee’s contributions (3% of salary) are refunded with no interest and the pension fund retains the employer portion of contributions. However, the FRS is unusual for offering a choice between a 401(k)-like plan and a pension, which must be selected within the first few months of employment. The 401(k)-like plan, called the FRS investment plan, vests the employer’s 3.3% salary contribution after only one year instead of eight. Predicting how long one will work for the State of Florida is not easy, and not fully in the employee’s control—what if they are fired with cause or terminated due to a recession?

In the private sector, we see the bounty effect result in employer malfeasance in smaller ways. The employer match to a 401(k) plan typically takes a few years to vest; employers are incentivized to terminate employees before reaching this milestone in order to claw back the benefits. Other benefits, such as vacation time and health insurance, are only offered after one year of service at many employers, with employee turnover serving to make these benefits useful to only a small percentage of hires, and rationales for firing employees mysteriously spike as they close in on attaining costly perks. Indeed, the customer-facing space is no exception; consider my continuing crusade against Amazon, a company that encourages customers to pre-pay purchases by attaining a gift card balance, perversely incentivizing the company to ban customers and steal gift card balances to maximize free cash flow. The larger your Amazon account’s gift card balance, the higher the probability of you being banned. This happens with credit card reward programs, frequent flyer miles, hotel points, and in many other areas, both via theft or forfeiture, hoops to jump through to redeem one’s benefits, and by devaluation of existing balances.

Devaluations of benefits occur within the broader context of fiat currencies. The U.S. dollar loses value continuously, with the Federal Reserve aiming for a 2% increase in consumer prices each year. Anyone with substantial debts, particularly if they are locked into a low interest rate such as a fixed-rate mortgage, should cheer inflation as it reduces their debts in real terms. With the 2011 removal of a 3% annual inflation adjustment from FRS benefits, current members must consider the U.S. dollar’s performance if they seek to forecast purchasing power in and during retirement. We could have several decades of 2% inflation per year, or there could be years like 1979–1981 which had more than 10% inflation per year. If high inflation occurs, FRS members’ benefits decline substantially in real terms, although they remain flat in nominal dollars. Even during retirement, this has large costs.

Many people misconceptualize retirement as a singular moment where one cashes in their poker chips and leaves the casino, but in fact it is a long slog with unknowable costs and pitfalls (many of them health related), and a need for risk-taking. Target-date retirement funds don’t go to 0% stock allocation when one retires; they typically stay around 40–50% for continued potential for portfolio growth as retirement could last 30 years or even longer. Another large unknown that may appear unrelated, but in fact is intensely relevant, is climate change. Planet-wide, humans are continuing their suicide mission to boil themselves alive. We have no idea whether risky assets such as corporate stocks and real estate will continue their growth trajectories as the climate crisis worsens, and this will be coupled with personal costs unrelated to one’s retirement portfolio.

This concludes my two-part series on the FRS and retirement saving, but expect more writing from me on similar topics in the months to come.

About Retirement Saving and the Florida Retirement System, Part 1

For my doctoral dissertation at University of Central Florida (UCF), to be completed in Fall 2019 and entitled A Survey of Investing and Retirement Knowledge and Preferences of Florida Preservice Teachers, I will administer a questionnaire to undergraduate students at UCF who are studying to become teachers. The questionnaire (commonly referred to as a “survey”) asks about their financial knowledge and personal preferences related to personal finance, retirement accounts, and the Florida Retirement System (FRS), as well as financial challenges they anticipate in retirement and in funding their retirement.

Although the background information explained in my dissertation’s introduction and literature review chapters is extensive, I am writing here to explain this information along with important but ancillary points regarding teacher retirement preparedness, the FRS, pensions for public workers, and financial literacy.

Pension plans, which pay a monthly benefit in retirement, are uncommon nowadays in the private sector. Since the 1980s, they have been almost completely replaced by 401(k) or similar accounts that employees fund on their own, manage investments, and draw upon. Although employers may add “free” money to an employee’s 401(k) account (e.g., employer matching contribution), employers do not have to worry about paying an employee for the rest of their life in retirement, or other things such as survivor’s benefits for a spouse or children.

However, pension plans remain common in the public sector, and teachers are the most numerous class of public workers. These plans are managed by state governments or school districts, and over the past decade since the Great Recession of 2007–2009, many states have watered down benefits for existing and new employees, with many even replacing pension benefits with 401(k)-like accounts or adding an option for such an account. The FRS added such an option earlier than most, in 2001. Florida offers both a pension plan and a 401(k)-like plan (“investment plan”). Teachers and other public workers get to choose the plan they want when they start working for the State of Florida. Then, in 2011, the Florida legislature watered down benefits for both types of plans, which continues to this day despite a booming economy and stock market.

The idea of a retirement plan is set aside money to avoid poverty in the third phase of life, after one stops working. This phase (“retirement”) is getting longer as lifespans increase; although life expectancy is 79 in the United States now, about half of people will live beyond this, sometimes for a decade or longer, and women also have longer lifespans than men. Teachers and other public workers face a special challenge; about 40% of teachers won’t receive Social Security benefits (unless they worked another job), because 15 states including California do not participate in Social Security. Such teachers are even more dependent on their employer retirement plan. Florida does participate in Social Security, which means 12.4% of employee wages are sent to the Social Security Administration and Florida teachers will receive benefits in retirement, on top of any FRS benefits. Although private employers must participate in Social Security, opting out is a special option given only to public employers.

Retirement plans receive special tax treatment under U.S. law, which is why it is beneficial to put money in a retirement plan rather than receiving pay as normal taxable wages and putting the money in an account that is taxed for interest, dividends, and capital gains. Retirement is something that must occur after a certain age with respect to many plans; there are penalties for drawing on a 401(k) or individual retirement arrangement (IRA) before Age 59 and six months, full retirement age for Social Security is 67, and employees hired on or after July 1, 2011 in the FRS must work 33 years or become Age 65 before receiving their benefits. Retiring before these ages is also ill-advised for many Americans because they wouldn’t be able to afford it and they would lose their employer-sponsored health insurance before Medicare eligibility at Age 65, although the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act has enabled early retirement for many financially privileged Americans since 2014, thanks to government insurance subsidies provided to Americans which are means-tested based on income, not wealth, which means that even millionaires can be on the dole if they have manipulated their present annual income to be low by ceasing work.

In a similar way, retirement plans allow Americans to manipulate their annual income, by the blessing of Congress as specified in the U.S. tax code, to reduce, defer, or eliminate payment of tax. For states that assess state and/or municipal income taxes, this may also have benefits (to workers) at these levels of government. There are also tax benefits bestowed on employers if providing nonwage benefits and deferred compensation, such as 401(k) plans, health insurance, stock options, et cetera. Data and research shows that workers, not just in the United States but also across the world, tend to spend money as they earn it, not investing for retirement or setting aside money for financial emergencies. Therefore, retirement plans also benefit workers by circumventing such inclinations, although voluntary plans or plans that allow withdrawals without much penalty or effort (such as IRAs) are less effective toward this end.

Putting money in a low-risk investment such as a certificate of deposit (CD) or U.S. government debt (Treasury bonds) is not an effective way to prepare for retirement because the money won’t grow much over time. One would typically talk about “saving” in respect to a savings account, CD, or government debt, so “retirement saving” is a bit of a misnomer. The term “retirement investing” is more appropriate, particularly for young people, who should have a large proportion of funds in the equities markets, as shares of companies’ stock which represents fractional ownership of corporations. Although events such as the Great Depression of the 1930s, the dot-com crash of 2000–2002, and the Great Recession of 2007–2009 decimated such investments, over several decades the probability of such events being counteracted by investment gains approaches 100%. That is to say, investing is the opposite of gambling; as you do it more and longer, your probability of an increase approaches 100%, whereas with gambling it approaches 0%. When it comes to pension plans such as the FRS pension plan, the government assumes investing risk and pays benefits based on a formula calculated from your employee class, salary, and years worked, regardless of how the stock market performs. When it comes to defined-contribution plans such as 401(k) plans and the FRS investment plan, you assume investing risk and may run out of money if you have bad luck or poor planning.

Continued in Part 2

Capital One 360 Money Market OFFER500 $500 Incentive Bait-and-Switch

Recently I have been in dispute with Capital One regarding a promotional offer for opening and funding a Money Market account. Anyone who has read my website or Google searches my name knows that I am not one to back down when being ripped off by a large corporation. I have gone up against, Bank of America, MetroPCS, and others I can’t even recall, and I rarely lose. It is not that I am seeking being defrauded, but that in America, large corporations basically operate like it is the Wild West, reneging on contractually obligated terms with condescension, glee, and no fear of reprisal or even public opinion. I am seriously considering switching from Republican to Democrat and voting for Elizabeth Warren, as Trump has done nothing but enable the corporate fleecing of individual Americans by gutting the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) and many other laws and regulatory bodies.

I opened a Capital One 360 Money Market account # [redacted] on September 7, 2018 using promotion code OFFER500, and fulfilled the requirements of this offer with cumulative deposits as of October 15, 2018. Although the required 60 days have passed, Capital One contends I am ineligible for the $500 incentive due to not depositing $50,000 all at once. However, the terms of the offer were plainly written and do not require the deposits to be made all at once:

Here’s the full scoop on how to earn your $500 bonus: Open a 360 Money Market account and deposit at least $50,000 between 12:00 a.m. ET on September 1, 2018, and 11:59 p.m. ET on October 31, 2018. When you open your account, enter your promotional code—OFFER500. (Please do not share this code with others.) Deposits must be from another bank (transfers between Capital One accounts will not qualify).

My deposits were in excess of $50,000, came from external banks, and were completed on October 15, 2018. I am writing to request fulfillment of the $500 bonus per the offer terms.

Capital One has been nothing but rude and condescending to me. They say on the phone that I’m mistaken, that the terms haven’t changed and always said cycling is not allowed even though I demonstrated orally and in writing that this is false. They rebutted my CFPB complaint which was summarily closed, and I’ve already written up the small claims filing form and sent it to them two months ago but they told me on the phone to go ahead and try suing them. No offer of a consolation $200 like others got, and no offer to be eligible for another bonus in the future (prior account holders are barred from receiving a promotional incentive, even if they didn’t receive a promotional incentive for their prior account).

I am going to go with the Florida and Delaware attorney general complaints, BBB, et cetera before suing, as suing is a hassle with serving the summons on their registered agent and paying a large filing fee. I stated multiple times in letters and on the phone that I know they paid out the $500 bonus automatically to all customers up until September 21, 2018 who did the same sort of deposits that I did, but they wouldn’t admit to this or even address it.

Their attorney is wrong—they are in violation of laws on deceptive business practices and probably the Uniform Commercial Code too. If it was a business account that charges a fee based on deposit volume and you cycled deposits, they would still charge fees on the full totals of the deposits.

A key part of the terms is that it says $50,000 in “deposits must be from another bank” (plural). Also note that another offer, CELEBRATE (PDF), uses different terms “$500 bonus — you maintained a daily balance of $50,000 or more for the first 90 days following the Initial Funding Period.” But, both OFFER500 (PDF) and OFFER200 (PDF) do not require the 90 days balance nor mention of balance or withdrawals disqualifying one for the incentive. I brought this up on phone calls and in writing and they don’t even respond or address it.

My CFPB complaint was answered by an employee named Jonathan who signed and printed his response letter both with only his first name and would not give his last name on the phone. I then complained by email to Kleber Santos, President, Retail & Direct Bank at Capital One, who referred the issue back to Jonathan. Jonathan called me and was most patronizing and rude in explaining (incorrectly) that I misunderstood the terms and that Capital One will not be paying anything, and he told me to go ahead and try suing them when I brought up the possibility of a small claims lawsuit.

In the CFPB response letter, Jonathan lists all of my deposit and withdrawal activity and states:

As a result of this activity, your 360 Money Market balance didn’t reach at least $50,000.00, the balance requirement necessary for earning the $500.00 bonus. To successfully earn the $500.00 bonus and have it post within 60 days after completion, your 360 Money Market needed to be externally funded and have a total balance of at least $50,000.00 by October 31, 2018, at 11:59 PM ET.

As a result, we will not be honoring the posting of a $500.00 bonus to your 360 Money Market.

At every step in communicating by phone and in writing to Capital One and the CFPB I have explained the mismatch in terms, including attaching a PDF file each time of the terms as displayed when I opened the account which do not contain the language about the balance of the account needing to reach $50,000.00 at any single point in time. As the terms were in actuality written, there is only a requirement that deposits between September 1, 2018 and October 31, 2018 sum to $50,000.00 or more and come from external banks. The terms had no mention of intervening withdrawals not being allowed. Capital One will not address this nor will they address that they were in fact paying out bonuses to all customers up until September 21, 2018, and made no attempt to retroactively debit the bonus from these customers.

Why “Crapital” One is a fitting moniker

Online, Capital One is derogatorily referred to as Crapital One, and this is well deserved. Capital One loves suing its customers in small claims court—they sued more than 500,000 individual customers per year in 2008, 2009, and 2010 for debts much smaller than most credit card issues would sue for. It is no wonder they are not afraid of being sued, as they obviously have an expansive network of attorneys and paralegals to handle suing individual customers en masse. In small claims court, they are almost universally the plantiff rather than the defendant. This is in diametric opposition to common perceptions of small claims court being a venue for consumers to seek financial justice against large corporations. The Center for Responsible Lending has challenged Capital One in an amicus brief to a federal appeals court regarding Capital One’s “misleading overdraft fee practice” to deduct the maximum amount from customers’ deposit accounts. It should not be a surprise that an overdrawn Capital One account, even by just a few dollars, will invariably cascade into hundreds of dollars in overdraft fees that Capital One is happy to sue their customers in small claims court for.

Capital One should be avoided. ING Direct was a fine bank before Capital One acquired them, rebranded as Capital One 360, and changed the modus operandi to ripping customers off rather than helping them. If you, too, are a victim of Capital One, I suggest emailing their executives, and complaining, both publicly and in private, through regulatory agencies, the court, social media, personal websites, et cetera. Not only do they systematically prey on subprime customers in an organized fashion—they brazenly act in bad faith against detail-oriented, rule-following customers like myself.

The simple solution would be for them to honor their terms as written for past customers and adjust the terms for future customers. But no—Capital One continues their bait-and-switch scheme even after the backlash they are experiencing on the OFFER500 debacle. They continue to offer a similar promotion, OFFER200, which substitutes a $200 bonus for $10,000 in deposits with otherwise identical terms: (PDF)

Here’s the full scoop on how to earn your $200 bonus: Open a 360 Money Market account and deposit at least $10,000 between 12:00 a.m. ET on between December 12, 2018, and 11:59 p.m. ET on March 31, 2019. When you open your account, enter your promotional code—OFFER200. (Please do not share this code with others.) Deposits must be from another bank (transfers between Capital One accounts will not qualify). If you have or had an open savings product with Capital One after January 1, 2016, you’re ineligible for the bonus. This offer cannot be combined with any other Capital One Bank or Capital One 360 new account opening offer. Bonus is only valid for one account.

When will I actually get my bonus? Capital One will deposit the $200 bonus into your account within 60 days after completing the above conditions. If your account is in default, closed, or suspended, or otherwise not in good standing, you will not receive the bonus.

They could easily stipulate that the account must attain a $10,000 balance during the promotion period. Their employees and executives erroneously purport that the terms say that, which they do not. As written, one who does not have $10,000 on-hand should be able to receive the bonus by making deposits from another bank and withdrawals to another bank (e.g., “cycling”) of smaller amounts which in aggregate sum to $10,000 or more of deposits during the promotion period. Although the terms say “transfers between Capital One accounts will not qualify,” they do not say that transfers between Capital One accounts and external banks do not qualify. Moreover, they were paying out such bonuses programmatically and automatically to customers who cycled deposits up until September 21, 2018, when someone in marketing or loss prevention must have noticed they could be saving quite a bit of money by not doing this. But, where is the requisite change in terms? Nowhere to be found, even in Capital One’s new promotions, which makes this nothing less than a bait-and-switch. Theirs is a deceptive and misleading business practice in violation of contractually obliged terms—terms which Capital One could easily adjust and currently are quite concise and clear—in opposition to their contentions to the contrary. Shameful.

Combating Investing Profiteers and Their Propaganda Against Low-Cost Investing

No one knew better than Jack Bogle (1929–2019) that the interests of the financial industry are diametrically opposed to the interests of the common person. Low-cost index-tracking funds now comprise about 20% of the market for U.S. stock mutual funds, and this share continues to grow. However, Americans’ financial and investing literacy remains low, and those seeking out information are overwhelmed by propaganda from profiteers, which makes it hard to discern the truth.

John Paulson, a wealthy profiteer in the hedge fund industry, surprisingly shared some truth in a recent Bloomberg Opinion column:

“The other thing I love about this business, when I say why I went into this business, is the fee structure,” he [Paulson] added, detailing how much he could make in charging a 1 per cent management fee and 20 per cent performance fee on different levels of assets.

“The more money you manage, the greater the fees,” he said. “Now ultimately we managed over $30bn, and there were years our returns were well in excess of 20 per cent, so to get to those levels, the fees just pour out of the sky.”

The column author (Matt Levine) continues, elaborating on how Paulson profited even while screwing over his investors:

Also if you start losing money you don’t have to give the fees back: “The 63-year-old money manager said that almost 75 to 80 per cent of the money managed by Paulson & Co was now his own capital, reflecting years of disappointing returns that have driven outside investors away”—though also reflecting earlier years of huge returns and huge fees that allowed him to have billions of dollars of his own money in his fund—and “he would consider turning his firm Paulson & Co into a family office ‘in the next year or two.'”

Hedge funds aren’t even open to the ordinary investor; you must be an accredited investor with at least a $1 million net worth excluding one’s home, or income over $200,000 in the past few years. Supposedly, hedge funds are where “smart money” goes; accredited investors are sometimes referred to as “sophisticated” investors, such as in Australian law. This is ironic, because it is foolish to pay 1% per year of portfolio value plus 20% of gains, when active investors are demonstrably incompetent. Above, we see that Paulson had a few good years early on causing foolish investors to pour into his fund, followed by many years of terrible returns that led them to pull out. All along, he collected about 1% per year in management fees plus about 20% of investors’ gains during good years, while losing nothing in bad years. This is highway robbery.

Vanguard, the company Jack Bogle founded, fought profiteering on multiple fronts. They fought against “load fees,” which are sales commissions for stockbrokers that come as a percentage of invested assets. Up until the 1970s, no-load mutual funds were almost unheard of, and it was common for brokers to get as much as 5% right off the top—if you put in $10,000, only $9,500 got invested and they kept $500, immediately kneecapping your returns. Now, investments with load fees are the abnormality. And, although Vanguard has always offered actively managed funds, they pioneered index-tracking funds with much lower fees. Tracking an index, such as the S&P 500, has shown to be consistently better than active management. Most fund managers produce returns that are lower than an index fund. When you add sky-high fees on top of this, you are guaranteed to lose money. Conway (2014) writes in a Barron’s article:

How hard it is to predict who will do well. This isn’t part of the latest S&P study, but the index maker’s previous work on the subject suggests there’s no statistically significant persistence among funds in the highest-performing groups. There’s no new evidence suggesting that’s changed.

When you look at your 401(k) plan, you will almost certainly see investment options that don’t belong there. There are almost assuredly funds in there that charge fees of 1% per year or more, and sometimes a low-cost index fund, with an annual fee of about 0.05%, isn’t even available. The profiteers’ reach is deep, and it extends even to our teachers who are scammed by 403(b) annuity plans, in cahoots with lawmakers and administrators who partner with profiteering companies to only put bad investment options on the table.

Online, the propaganda against low-cost investing is widespread. The industry reaps massive profits while creating little value, not unlike the tobacco companies. They have a lot to lose. This is why there are daily propoganda pieces in the news saying things like “if everyone invested in index funds, it would be a catastrophe” and stuffing Wikipedia pages with propaganda such as “many investors also find it difficult to beat the performance of the S&P 500 Index due to their lack of experience/skill in investing” and purporting that unsuccessful active managers are actually “closet indexers,” justifying high fees while failing to deliver the product (active management) that purportedly produces profits.

In truth, active management is a nothingburger. You pay high fees and get lower returns than an index fund. It’s sort of like going to a bank and paying $200 to arrange to be mugged in the parking lot.

Even without sales commissions, financial advisors and other financial professionals still have plenty of ways to profiteer. They do this via an annual or quarterly fee assessed against “assets under management” that you have made them custodian of, which is usually around 1% per year. Framing this as 1% per year actually does a disservice to the investor, however. The stock market only returns about 10% per year as a long-term average, before inflation which is roughly 3%. One percent of 10% is actually a 10% fee, and if adjusting for inflation, a 14% fee. Would you pay a real estate agent 14%?

On top of this, the investments financial advisors place you in, even if index funds, likely do not have the 0.05% or even lower annual fees that are offered by Vanguard, Fidelity, Charles Schwab, and others. You might see your money in a fund that is substantially similar yet has a 0.5% annual fee, with your advisor receiving a cut from the affiliated company. If you can expect a long-term average of 7% in real returns before fees, then 1.5% of fund and advisor fees gobbles up 21.4% of these returns. Each and every year.

The FINRA foundation’s recent study of Millennial investors found that Millennials are actually eager to work face-to-face with financial professionals rather than do-it-yourself investing or using a robo-advisor. Also, Millennials had no idea that you need substantial assets to work with a financial advisor, and they expected an advisor to take a whopping 5% of assets under management as a fee each year. Such lack of knowledge is kryptonite to achieving financial independence. Even a high income cannot compensate. “A fool and his money are soon parted,” as the saying goes. In this industry, it is not helpful that wolves masquerade as sheep and sheep do not even notice they are being eaten.

The common American does not have access to a hedge fund or even a financial advisor, yet they still have a 401(k) plan available, chock full of bad investment options. There might only be one low-cost index fund available in their 401(k) fund menu, or even none at all. About half of Americans do not invest in stocks at all, and if they do, they don’t know that buying and holding the whole market is the best strategy. This fact is both counterintuitive and pilloried by propagandists in the financial media. To combat profiteering and propaganda by vested interests in the financial industry, financial education is key, but must be coupled with outlawing and derriding profiteering practices. A good place to start is with 403(b) plans for public school teachers. Teachers lack financial knowledge, shape the next generation’s knowledge, and are besieged with low pay, awful pension plans that no one ever gets a pension from, cringeworthy annuities masquerading as investment options, and sales representatives that stake out school cafeterias to cajole them into financial ruination. Therefore, for my forthcoming Education Ph.D. dissertation at University of Central Florida, An Investigation of Investing and Retirement Knowledge Among Preservice Teachers, I am surveying the next generation of teachers to provide (a) evidence to support reforms both nationally and locally and (b) instructional design recommendations for financial education programs.

This article was also posted on Tippyfi.

Thoughts on Big Three Question #2 used to assess financial literacy: Inflation

Continuing from the savings account interest question, here I will talk about Question #2 of the “Big Three” financial literacy questions created by Annamaria Lusardi and Olivia S. Mitchell.

The prior question asked about the resultant nominal account balance of a savings account after five years earning 2% per year of interest. The second question is similar but introduces the construct of inflation and assesses understanding of erosion of savings via inflation.

2. Imagine that the interest rate on your savings account was 1% per year and inflation was 2% per year. After 1 year, how much would you be able to buy with the money in this account?
More than today
Exactly the same
Less than today
Do not know
Refuse to answer

The prior question was correctly answered by 75% of respondents to the 2015 National Financial Capability Study, but the above question was only correctly answered by 60% of respondents. If we break down respondents by educational attainment, their responses were as follows:

Inflation Question by Educational Attainment

The green (left) bars represent correctly answering the question as “less than today.” The yellow bars represent selecting “Do not know,” and the red bars represent selecting “More than today” or “Exactly the same,” both of which are incorrect. “Refuse to answer” respondents are excluded in the above statistics, and I have used the nationally representative weights provided by the FINRA foundation. The above figure is from my 2017 poster presentation on financial capability and educational attainment.

As we see, more educated respondents get the answer right more often. Although many highly educated respondents select a wrong answer, they are much less likely to select “Do not know” than those with less education.

There are many hidden assumptions in this question which can be confusing for the reader. We must assume inflation refers not to expansion of the money supply but rather to increases in prices of consumer goods. The question deals with generalities rather than specifics; the reader must assume we are talking about goods on average, rather than a particular sector. If we are talking about 16 GB USB flash drives, one would probably be able to buy more of them in a year because technology prices tend to decline, but other goods go up in price. The reader must also assume we are talking about national averages, because prices may fluctuate contrary to overall inflation in certain regions.

Respondents who understand this question are likely able to divine the difference between nominal dollars and real purchasing power. Nominally, the account balance increases from $100.00 to $101.00. This is true whether the 1.00% interest rate is an annual percentage yield (APY) or an annual percentage rate (APR) compounded quarterly or monthly. Even monthly compounding would fail to increase the resultant nominal balance to $101.01 (assuming favorable rounding errors do not occur), as $101.0046 would be rounded down to the nearest cent.

With inflation being 2.00%, this means it takes, on average, 2.00% more dollars to buy the same items a year later. For “Exactly the same” to be the correct answer, the final nominal account balance would have to be $102.00, not $101.00. This means that it took 1.96% less dollars to buy the same goods at Year 0 than Year 1, or 2.00% more dollars to buy the same goods at Year 1 than Year 0. (Incidentally, many people are baffled when I tell them about this quirk of percentages. Examples: If the stock market drops 20%, it has to go up 25% to get back where it was. At Michaels [sic] arts and crafts store, forgetting to use your 50% off coupon means you paid 100% more than you would have had you remembered.)

“How much would you be able to buy” begs a response: “of what?” The question prompt does not provide this, and it couldn’t without being unwieldy. Nonetheless, a respondent could pick “More than today” and be technically correct if they make an undesired assumption about “of what?” If we are talking about quarters, one would be able to go to the bank and get 404 of them after a year, as compared with 400 at the start. A smart aleck could argue the “wrong” answer is actually right, and we must rely on the metaphorical spirit of the law rather than letter of the law to interpret the question appropriately.

In the scenario, real returns, which adjust for inflation, are about –1% in this year, because the nominal return of 1% was overwhelmed by inflation which exceeded the return, at 2%. Specifically, real returns would be ($101.00 / $102.00) – 1, which is .9902 – 1, which is –.0098. Multiplying by 100 to get a percentage, this is –.98%. Therefore, “Less than today” is the correct response with the unlucky individual in the question prompt having lost 0.98% of their real purchasing power. The Internal Revenue Service disregards inflation and would expect income tax to be paid on the $1.00 of increase in your savings account balance, and they actually classify interest income as “unearned” income. These two facts taken together are rather insulting.

In the end, you can buy 4 more quarters, 10 more dimes, 20 more nickels, or 100 more cents. Your account balance increased $1.00 and you owe anywhere from zero to 37¢ to the IRS, and possibly up to 15¢ of state income tax (in California if your income is over $1 million for the year). However, your purchasing power has declined by almost 0.98%.

In truth, the Big Three financial literacy questions are not magical. Although their widespread use has shown us the sorry state of financial literacy both in the United States and abroad, the questions are susceptible to biases such as framing and interpretation, and to an extent they confound financial literacy with linguistic knowledge, mathematical knowledge, and/or knowledge of financial practices and institutions. Regarding framing in particular, Stolper and Walter (2017, p. 596) state:

Another shortcoming of test-based measures of financial literacy is their sensitivity to framing. Specifically, Lusardi and Mitchell (2011a, b) and van Rooij et al. (2011b) document that the answers of survey participants differ significantly based on the wording of the test questions. In fact, the percentage of correct answers doubled in the latter study when the wording for the third question of the Big Three was “buying company stock usually provides a safer return than a stock mutual fund” as compared to phrasing the question reversely, i.e. “buying a stock mutual fund usually provides a safer return than a company stock“. Hence, Lusardi and Mitchell (2014) conclude that some answers classified as “correct” might instead reflect simple guessing of respondents and highlight that measurement error might be an issue when eliciting financial ability based on test questions.

In a future post, I will discuss the final Big Three question on a single stock versus a stock mutual fund, including Stolper and Walter’s criticism of the question’s susceptibility to framing effects.