MONEY financial literacy

Why Workers and Retirees Missed the Roaring Bull Market

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Investor optimism dips, especially among retirees, a new survey finds. Maybe it's because 1 in 10 investors haven't noticed the huge gains in the market.

Quick, how much did the stock market gain last year? Tough question, right? Okay, let’s try a multiple choice: Based on the S&P 500 index, did the market rise 10%, 20%, or 30%? Evidently, that’s a tough question too because the vast majority of investors haven’t a clue.

Only 11% of adults with at least $10,000 in savings and investments got it right in a Wells Fargo/Gallup poll. This stands in stark contrast to the 67% that rate themselves somewhat or highly knowledgeable about investing and underscores the extent to which so many people simply don’t know what they don’t know.

For the record, the S&P 500 rose 30% in 2013—you received a total return of 32% if you reinvested dividends. This is the 13th biggest gain in a calendar year since 1926. Forget about getting the percentage right. Anyone paying attention should at least know that last year was a huge winner. Yet only 64% of investors even knew the market was up. Of those who did, 57% thought the gain was just 10% while 27% thought the gain was 20%. About 1% was looking through rose-colored glasses and thought the market rose 40% or more.

The poll also found that retirees were feeling much less optimistic in the second quarter. The Wells Fargo/Gallup Investor and Retirement Optimism index declined modestly overall but the portion looking only at retirees plunged 41%. This too seems incongruous. Second-quarter GDP surged 4%, one of the sharpest quarterly gains since the Great Recession.

One reason for this gloom is that about half of both retirees and workers are worried they will outlive their money, the poll found. Sadly, this may be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Playing it safe and earning 1% in a money market account won’t amount to much over time. Meanwhile, those who stayed true to a diversified portfolio of stocks through the downturn are doing better than ever. They were present for that 32% market gain—even if they have no idea how great last year was for them.

As a whole, the findings suggest that many people remain fixated on the past. The recession was a harrowing and humbling experience. But it is over. Real estate prices have turned up and the job picture is better. The stock market has more than doubled from the bottom. Yet when asked what they would do with a $10,000 gift, 56% in the poll said they would hold it as cash or stash it in an ultra-safe bank CD—not invest for growth. At this rate, expect more declines in optimism, especially as retirees stuck in cash see further declines in income.

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MONEY 401(k)s

Are You a Saver or an Investor? It Matters in a 401(k)

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Most 401(k) participants see themselves as savers, new research shows. And it's holding them back.

The venerable 401(k) plan has many failings and is ill suited as a primary retirement savings vehicle. Yet it could do so much more if only workers understood how to best use it.

The vast majority of 401(k) plan participants view themselves as savers, not investors, according to new research. As such, they are less likely to allocate money to 401(k) plan options that will provide the long-term growth they need to retire in comfort.

Only 22% of workers in a 401(k) plan in the U.S., U.K. and Ireland say they are knowledgeable about investing, State Street Global Advisors found. This translates into a low tolerance for risk: only 27% in the U.S., 15% in the U.K., and 10% in Ireland say they are willing to take greater risk to achieve better returns.

This in turn leads to sinking retirement confidence. Only 31% in the U.S., 26% in the U.K., and 16% in Ireland feel they will save enough in their 401(k) plan to fund a comfortable retirement, the survey shows.

The faults of 401(k) plans are well documented and range from uncertain returns to high fees to failing to provide guaranteed lifetime income. Economic activists like Teresa Ghilarducci, a professor of economics at the New School and author of When I’m Sixty-Four, have been arguing for years that we need to return to something like the traditional pension.

But the switch to 401(k) plans from traditional pensions has taken more than three decades. A broad reversal will be slow too, if it comes at all. In the meantime, workers need to understand how to best use their 401(k) or other employer-sponsored defined contribution plan. Like it or not, these plans have become our de facto primary retirement savings vehicles.

At a basic level, plan participants of all ages must begin to embrace higher risk in return for higher rewards. The State Street survey reveals broad under-exposure to stocks, which historically have provided the highest long-term returns. A popular rule of thumb is to subtract your age from 110 to determine your allocation to stocks. But the latest research suggests that even just a few years from retirement you are better off holding more stocks.

There is much more to making the most of your 401(k) plan than just adding risk. You need to contribute enough to capture the full employer match and be well diversified, among other things. But it all starts with understanding that saving in a secure fixed-income product is not investing, and it is not enough to get you to the promised land.

Yes, the financial crisis is still fresh and the market’s deep plunge is an all-too-real reminder that stocks have risk. But just five years later the market has fully recovered, and 401(k) balances have never been plumper. Fixate on the recovery, not the downturn. A diversified stock portfolio almost never loses money over a 10-year period. It took the Great Depression and then the Great Recession to produce 10-year losses, which were less than 5% and disappeared quickly in the recovery.

If you feel nervous about investing in stocks, consider opting for a target-date retirement fund, which will give you an asset mix that shifts to become more conservative as you near retirement. While they may not suit everyone, target-date funds tend to outperform most do-it-yourselfers, research shows. With your asset mix on cruise control, you can focus on saving, which is enough of a challenge.

MONEY Aging

Why It’s Never Too Late to Fix Your Finances

Those over 50 may become less sharp, but a little personal finance instruction can make a huge difference in their financial security.

When we speak of financial education today, in most cases we are referring to the broad, global effort to teach students how to stay out of debt and begin to save for retirement. But what about those who already have debts and may already be retired?

Clearly, we should teach them too. It’s never too late to improve your financial standing—and unlike financial education among the young, elders exposed to basic planning strategies adopt them readily, new research shows. This underscores the sweeping need for programs that address financial understanding at all ages and why even folks well past their saving years may still have time to get it right.

Last year, AARP Foundation and Charles Schwab Foundation completed a 15-month trial of financial instruction designed specifically for low-income people past the age of 50. After just six months of training, the subjects exhibited significant improvement in things like budgeting, saving, investing, managing debt and goal setting.

For example, only 42% of participants had at least one financial goal at the start of the program and 63% had set at least one financial goal after six months in the program. The rate of those spending more than they earned fell by a third and 35% had paid down debt. Many had begun to track spending and stop overdrawing accounts and paying late fees.

Participants saying they were “very worried” about money dropped to 14% from 22%; those saying they were “not very/not at all worried” jumped to 42% from 34%. These are remarkable gains in such a short period and among such a generally disadvantaged group. Half in the group had saved less than $10,000 and average income was about $35,000.

The research suggests that the 50-plus set can make big strides toward a secure financial life with some instruction. It jibes with other reports illustrating the value of financial inclusion for the unbanked millions and how a higher degree of personal financial ability might even save our way of life for everyone.

But let’s be clear: this isn’t just a way for low-income households to improve their lot. Plenty middle-class and even affluent households have a savings problem. And as we age we tend to make poorer money decisions regardless of our net worth. So it’s nice to see the financial education effort move beyond the classroom—increasingly to places of employment as part of benefits counseling and now, maybe, to community centers and retirement villages where willing adults can find it’s never too late to learn something new and feel good about their finances.

MONEY Personal Finance

Money Know-How? American Teens Are, Well, Just Average

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A major study shows that American 15-year-olds are barely average when it comes to knowledge of personal finance—and way behind the kids in Shanghai.

For a country whose grandest export might be capitalism, we don’t do very well with our own kids. American teens land smack in the middle of the pack when it comes to simple personal financial know-how, according to a groundbreaking new global study.

Topping the list are kids in Shanghai, Belgium, Estonia, Australia and New Zealand. Bringing up the bottom are teens in Colombia, Italy, Slovak Republic, and Israel. The U.S. rates just below Latvia and ahead of France.

These findings come in the newly released 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), a widely recognized comparative measure of student proficiency in 65 countries. In the past, PISA has focused on math, science, and reading. For the first time, in 2012 it added testing on personal financial concepts.

Only 18 countries opted into the financial literacy component, which is a statement all by itself. This is a relatively new field of education and most countries have little more than a fledgling effort. Some who take it seriously and have broad financial education programs, like Australia and New Zealand, scored relatively well. But Shanghai, which is not regarded as a leader, produced the best results of all.

The assessment looked specifically at 15-year-olds. Those in Shanghai had a mean score of 603—well ahead of second-place Belgium (541) and 9th-place U.S. (492). In last place was Colombia’s mean score of 379. PISA is part of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

The 2012 results, eagerly awaited in education circles (and especially in financial education circles), were a bust in at least one big way. The goal is to figure out how to raise the financial I.Q. of people around the world by starting early and teaching in classrooms about budgets, credit cards, saving and investing. Asked what seems to work best, Michael Davidson, head of schools at the OECD, said, “The easy answer is we don’t know.”

The strong scores in Shanghai correlate with strong math scores there, he noted. But in other countries, the highest scores correlated with simply having a bank account. In general, strong financial literacy scores were also highly correlated with students demonstrating problem-solving skills and perseverance. So it may be that the best approach is a focus on math, offering kids some exposure to real world financial decisions and cultivating their will to ask questions and not give up so quickly in all spheres of life.

Among U.S. students, the OECD found that:

  • A worse-than-average 17.8% do not reach even a baseline level of understanding about money concepts, meaning that at best such students will understand an invoice or the difference between a want and a need. They have little aptitude for even simple things like a basic budget or loan.
  • A nearly average 9.4% is a top performer, meaning they understand things like fees and transactions costs and can make financial decisions with no immediate benefit but which will be good for them in the long run.

These are discouraging numbers, especially when weighed against the results in Shanghai, where just 2% of 15-year-olds do not reach the baseline and 43% are top performers—and efforts at formal financial education there are way behind those in the U.S.. With numbers like these, it’s the Chinese in Shanghai that soon may be exporting capitalism.

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