Following is a summary of their findings:
- The majority of individuals exhibited a very low degree of financial literacy. For example, almost half of respondents weren’t able to describe inflation, 55% incorrectly defined risk diversification, 57% did not correctly define the risk/return relationship, 72% were not able to compare investment options across expected returns and 67% showed insufficient understanding of simple interest rates.
- Nearly 45% of investors preferred informal advice (that is, consulting relatives, friends and colleagues) to professional advice.
- The authors, in general, found a lower level of financial knowledge among women, resulting in a gender gap.
- Loss aversion was quite widespread. Overall, 55% of respondents weren’t willing to take financial risk, implying a chance of loss and 17% would disinvest after even a very little loss. However, financial knowledge is positively related to risk aversion. The more financial knowledge someone has, the less risk averse that investor tends to be.
- Financial literacy positively affected financial advice seeking. The higher the level of financial literacy, the more likely it is that professional advice will be sought.
- Financial knowledge was negatively related to high levels of investor self-confidence. Less knowledgeable investors were more confident of their skill (skill they do not, in fact, have). Overconfidence, in turn, discourages demand for advice (by the very people who need it the most).
- Overconfidence was prevalent. For example, among individuals reporting an understanding of basic financial products equal or higher than the average person, 30% weren’t able to correctly define inflation and 44% couldn’t solve a simple-interest problem.
- Financial advice acts as a complement rather than as a substitute of financial capabilities.
Gentile, Linciano and Soccorso concluded that their results confirm “concerns about regulation of financial advice being not enough to protect investors who need it most.”
They continue: “Additionally, our findings suggest that investor education programmes may be beneficial not only directly, i.e. by raising financial capabilities, but also indirectly, i.e. by enhancing people’s awareness of their financial capability and by hindering overconfident behaviours and behavioural biases. This latter outcome mitigates the worries about financial education fueling confidence without improving competence, thus leading to worse decisions.”
One of the great tragedies is that most Americans, having taken a biology course in high school, know more about amoebas than they do about investing. Despite its obvious importance to every individual, our education system almost totally ignores the field of finance and investments. This remains true unless you attend an undergraduate business school or pursue an MBA in finance. Without a basic understanding of finance and markets, there’s simply no way for investors to make prudent decisions.
Making matters worse is that far too many investors think they know how markets work, when the reality is quite different. As humorist Josh Billings noted: “It ain’t what a man don’t know as makes him a fool, but what he does know as ain’t so.”
The result is that individuals make investments without the basic knowledge required to understand the implications of their decisions. It’s as if they took a trip to a place they have never been with neither a road map nor directions. Lacking formal education in finance, most investors make decisions based on accepted conventional wisdom—ideas that have become so ingrained that few individuals question them.
And some spend far more time watching reality TV shows than they do investing in their own financial literacy. Given the important role that financial literacy plays in achieving financial goals, this is dangerous behavior.
Larry Swedroe is the director of research for The BAM Alliance, a community of more than 140 independent registered investment advisors throughout the country.