Summit aims to teach anyone to invest, even before they start earning

Sometimes the only push that is necessary for financial literacy comes from parents. But other times, joint business and government initiatives are necessary, and it's never too early to start.

Byron Pollitt, centre, the chief financial officer for Visa, reacts while watching a Financial Soccer video game at the Financial Literacy & Education Summit in Chicago, which was co-hosted by the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago and Visa. Peter Wynn Thompson for The National (w)
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Most boys look forward to ripping open their birthday gifts each year and revealing fun trinkets or high-tech gadgets to play with. But John Rogers was only 12 years old when he stopped receiving toys. Instead, his father started giving him stocks, which produced something other than instant gratification: small amounts of dividend returns at the end of each quarter.

"I started to look forward to those cheques every three months," says Mr Rogers, who now serves as chairman and chief executive of Ariel Investments, a Chicago-based money management firm. "He let me spend them any way that I could. It was all up to me."

But learning how to manage money from the few stock dividends he earned was just the beginning. "It was a great way to get started," says Mr Rogers, who last year was appointed by President Barack Obama to become the chair of the president's Advisory Council on Financial Capability in the US. "I had to learn about a chequing account. I had to learn about a savings account. I had to learn everything, because he [my dad] gave me that exposure."

This week, during the annual Financial Literacy & Education Summit at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, both Mr Rogers and top financial experts from the US argued that there is a greater need for boosting financial education among people who live not only in North America but also in other parts of the world, including the UAE and Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region.

Sometimes the only push that's needed starts with parents, experts say, while other times joint ventures between government agencies and private companies can make a big impact.

"Given the economic difficulties that we've recently faced, financial education and, ultimately, the ability to make good financial decisions have become increasingly important issues to each and every one of us," says Charles Evans, the president and chief executive of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, which co-hosted the summit with Visa, the global card payment giant.

"In the last two decades, we've seen an exponential increase in financial products. This has, of course, increased our choices, but made the financial decision-making process all the more difficult."

Complex financial products are one thing. But like many Americans, more residents of the Middle East could benefit from understanding basic financial concepts, says Ian Solomon, the US executive director of the World Bank. "I think some of the issues are quite similar."

Indeed, research conducted by the US Department of Treasury has shown that 49 per cent of US residents say they have trouble keeping up with monthly expenses, while 51 per cent do not have sufficient funds tucked away for economic emergencies.

Residents of the Emirates are similarly struggling. The Abu Dhabi Council for Economic Development (ADCED) issued a report last year that found fewer than a third of the population either paid their credit-card bills on time or saved money regularly. Just 20 per cent of people bother breaking out a budget.

While the ADCED recently launched a financial literacy campaign in the UAE, with the website as the focal point, it and other government agencies around the world with similar campaigns of their own need to ensure they co-ordinate with all relevant stakeholders, experts say.

In the UAE, this includes not only fostering more public and private partnerships to teach personal finance, but also localising content and pushing more parents to talk about money at home - even if it isn't always culturally comfortable.

Meanwhile, on the sidelines of the summit, about two dozen schoolchildren have their eyes glued to a giant screen. They appear visibly engaged with a football-based video game, where their real-life teammates include American football stars, top executives of financial companies and Rosie Rios, the US treasurer, who is there to help them with obscure currency-related queries.

The rules of the game are simple: correctly answer a financial question before a player can pass or kick the ball. What does "GNP" stand for? (gross national product). An illegal device used to steal information off a person's credit card is known as what? (A skimmer).

But why would an Arab or expatriate student in the Emirates care to know about, or need to understand, questions revolving around US taxes or 401(k) retirement plans? The truth is they don't, says Lama Kabbani, the Middle East spokesperson for Visa, which created the Financial Football and Financial Soccer video games for students around the world.

That's why such questions will eventually be cut in future editions of the video games, while curriculum tool kits that have made their way into some UAE schools will also be "localised", she says.

The initiative is all part of the next "phase" of Visa's global financial literacy campaign, which will include the introduction of two new video games that were announced at the summit. Money Metropolis will emphasise the importance of saving, while Peter Pig's Money Counter, which is designed for desktop computers but also Android phones and tablets, will help youngsters sort and count coins.

A new partnership with Marvel will also see the superhero Spider-Man woven into a forthcoming comic book, spun with a storyline pegged to personal finance and translated into no fewer than eight languages, including Arabic for readers in the UAE, Egypt and elsewhere in the Mena region.

"Entertainment works," says Byron Pollitt, the chief financial officer for Visa. "Give the kids some characters and stories to engage with and it can be a very effective learning tool. But we know the learning of these vital life skills must begin even earlier."

Mr Pollitt says the new video games won't target teenagers. Instead, they'll be aimed at children between the ages of five and 12.

"Video games to comic books in all of these different countries," says Mr Pollitt. "It's fair to ask: do these efforts make a difference?"

They can, depending on whom you ask. According to a white paper released a day before the summit by a consultant for an industry group that says it represents hundreds of securities firms, banks and asset managers, educational tools can increase consumers' knowledge and their ability to change their financial behaviour.

A separate assessment released last month from the financial firm Wells Fargo, and in partnership with Visa, also found that US college students who received a new credit card and took an online education programme were significantly less likely to have accounts with late fees, be delinquent with payments and less likely to file for bankruptcy.

Yet, company-sponsored programmes are only one piece of the puzzle. Parents must also find "teachable moments" to impart financial knowledge, says Mr Solomon. In his family, for instance, the opportunity arose when his children asked for a portable video game player similar to the Nintendo DS.

"How do I use that to kind of teach them lessons?" he says. "A rule of thumb that I use with them is money is time, and time is money.

"Money is time because if I'm going to pay $100-odd for this, how much time does daddy have to work and how many more times is daddy not going to be home with you? I'm committing myself to work in the future. That's what credit is, basically. And time is money because if they don't spend it and they save it, they'll actually have much money in the future."

Experts acknowledge it isn't always culturally comfortable to dig into details involving money, particularly in Arab families. Still, some argue that education from parents is more crucial compared with the delivery of information from other sources, including company-sponsored programmes and educators in schools. "I don't mean to boil it down to one basic thing, but it's talking to your kids," says Ted Beck, the president and chief executive of the National Endowment for Financial Education and a council member on President Obama's Advisory Council on Financial Capability.

"It all starts at home," echoes Richard Artega, another council member of the advisory council.