Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise today to point out some of the glaring problems in the government's bill, in its attitude to consumer protection in general and in regard to financial literacy specifically.
Obviously, a basic understanding of financial literacy is a good thing. Understanding how much the difference between a 5% and a 5.5% APR will cost over the lifetime of a loan, how long it will take to pay off a credit card if only the minimum payment is made each month, how much one needs to save each month for school or a car or to put money away for a down payment on a house or for retirement is clearly a benefit. The problem is that the government seems to think that encouraging these skills is a suitable substitute for a proper regime of consumer protection, retirement security and a proper strategy for economic growth.
This bill embodies the government's strategy or, more properly, the lack of strategy in addressing the issues that really matter to working and middle-class Canadians across the country. Specifically, the bill would create a financial literacy leader, a high level bureaucrat position, with the aim of encouraging financial literacy in the general public. At the same time, the government is calling on departments and agencies to slash spending. When the media is full of stories of tens of thousands of public servants being laid off, the government's answer to addressing this issue is to create a new, highly paid position. If we could guarantee that the position would be successful, that would be defendable, but there are a number of flaws in this bill, which leads me to believe that this position has little chance of success to start with.
The terms of reference for this position are extremely vague. While the holder of the post would be required to advance financial literacy, there is no definition of what constitutes financial literacy within the bill, nor any attempt to define how we could or should advance it.
Moreover, the original recommendation to create this position was very clear on the need for an advisory council that would include labour, voluntary groups and educators, as well as business stakeholders. They would be there to direct the work of the financial literacy leader. This bill does not include any legislation to create this advisory council and, as such, there is very little in the way of accountability.
Additionally, there is no proviso in the bill that would ensure that this position would be filled by someone who is fluent in both official languages. To me, it would seem necessary that someone who is expected to teach and encourage Canadians about financial literacy would be able to communicate in both French and English.
How able are we to teach financial literacy to Canadians? Human Resources and Skills Development Canada stats tell us that 26% of Canadians struggle with basic numeracy and that 20% struggle with basic literacy. However, the same government that is trying to sell Canadians on financial literacy being the answer to the economic problem is the same one that cut $17.7 million to adult literacy programs in 2006.
Without basic numeracy and literacy skills, how does the government expect Canadians to understand some of the more complex financial vehicles, which will apparently provide for them in their retirement.
Even for people who do not struggle with numeracy and literacy, finance is not a particularly comprehensible subject. As Barry McKenna, a business columnist for The Globe and Mail, states:
Looking to financial literacy to fill the void is like asking ordinary Canadians to be their own brain surgeons and airline pilots. The dizzying array of financial products, mixed with chaotic and increasingly irrational financial markets, makes the job of do-it-yourself financial planning almost impossible--no matter how literate you are. The average credit-card agreement is as intuitive as quantum physics.
It is clear from all the money spent by banks and other financial institutions on encouraging financial literacy that they see some benefit to it, but to what end? It does not take a genius to conclude that the banks like financial literacy because it allows them to expand their customer base. Encouraging people to take out savings and investment funds creates lucrative fees for banks and brokers. In fact, according to Morningstar, an investment research company, Canadian fees for equity funds are some of the highest in the world, being, on average, around two and a half times higher than fees in the United States.
Financial literacy, in this sense, is essentially a marketing exercise to create good customers. It teaches the benefits of saving vehicles but it is not necessarily critical of how financial vehicles work. It does not criticize plans where fund managers take a substantial fee regardless of the performance of the fund. It does not highlight how funds, like the CPP, regularly outperform private funds. It does not give enough weight to the inherent dangers of investing in the stock market.
As Paul Farrell, a MarketWatch columnist for The Washington Post puts it:
In spite of all the public hype about financial-literacy programs, the fact is Wall Street [or Bay Street] doesn’t want smart investors.
Bottom line: The last thing [its] wants is 95 million investors who are wise to [its]...games. ...revenues would drop substantially if financially literacy really did work.
Even more worrying is the possibility that we increase the quantity of financial literacy available but without ensuring its quality. This has two dangerous and interlinked consequences. The first is that the model shifts all the blame off banks and onto consumers. At the individual level, people are to be blamed for their own uninformed choices and, at the national or even international level, systemic problems are no longer the fault of the banks that lend beyond their means but the individuals who borrowed too much. Obviously, individuals do have a responsibility to manage their own finances but the banks, hedge funds and other financial institutions have the ability to effect the economy in a much more profound way than individual consumers, and we must not forget that.
What do we do for the people who actually end up worse off due to financial investments that fail? We need to understand that some people will lose their savings when businesses go bust or when the stock market drops. This has been the way the stock market has worked since the first recognizable stock exchange opened in Amsterdam in the 17th century.
What about those people who simply do not have the type of disposable income required to invest in their futures, the people who live paycheque to paycheque, the people who have seen their wages stagnate and fall in real terms since the mid 1990s? For both of these groups of people, a social safety net and regulatory system based on so-called financial literacy is a failure.
Lauren Willis, a professor at Loyola Law School, sums up these problems. He says:
For some consumers, financial education appears to increase confidence without improving ability, potentially leading to worse decisions. When consumers find themselves in dire financial straits, the regulation through education model blames them for their plight, shaming them and deflecting calls for effective market regulation. Requiring consumers to act as their own financial experts is socially inefficient.
What should the government do to fix Canada's broken system of financial consumer protection? For a start, it could build on what it is already doing, rather than trying to reinvent the wheel. The Financial Consumer Agency of Canada has already been commended for the work it has done in regard to financial literacy by earning a public service award of excellence in citizen-focused service delivery from the Treasury Board in 2010.
If the government feels that financial literacy is something worth pursuing, why does it not spend money on programs that have already proven effective, rather than starting from scratch in a program that we cannot be sure will be successful and will likely be more expensive due to the financial literacy leader's salary and office costs?
The government should recognize that for a large portion of Canadians a lack of savings is a reflection of the disparity between the rise in the cost of living and the rise in wages over the last 15 years or so. Encouraging savings is fine for people who have disposable income after they have paid for essentials. Unfortunately, however, for all too many people, taking on debt is not a choice. It is the only way to survive.
An OECD report published in 2011 pointed out that the trend toward a less progressive tax structure and a more unequal society here in Canada began in the mid-1990s under the then Liberal government and has continued since 2006 under the Conservatives.
As Canadian economist, Jim Stanford, noted in his submission to the national financial literacy task force:
Personal savings will never constitute an important source of financial security for the strong majority of Canadians who cannot save, given the paucity of their incomes.
This argument was reported by numerous submissions to the task force but these points were noticeably absent from the final report. It simply did not meet the goal of the task force to point out that the very thing it was pushing may not have all of the answers. Financial institutions already make a large amount of money from these individuals who are forced to carry credit card debt from month to month and who are unable to keep the significant balance in their current accounts required by banks to waive the monthly service fees. If the government really wanted to give these people an opportunity to build up their own savings, then it would regulate these types of fees and the level of interest that is charged on credit cards in order to allow people to put aside a bit of money every month.
Similarly, if the government wants to ensure that Canadians have adequate savings when they retire, the way forward is not to create a new and inherently risky vehicle for private savings. There are already multiple methods for Canadians to save for their future, as RRSPs and TFSAs spring to mind, if they have the funds available to invest, and these vehicles are already supported and funded by the government. Studies have shown that the highest earning 11% of Canadians contribute more to RRSPs than the bottom 89% of tax filers combined. Because of the tax benefits of investing in RRSPs, Canadian taxpayers subsidize that contribution by the top 11% of earners to the tune of $7.3 billion in annual net tax expenditures.
The creation of pooled registered pension plans, or PRPPs, would only benefit those people who are already able to invest in their retirement. They would do nothing for the 30% of Canadian families that lack any form of retirement savings outside of the CPP.
Encouraging people to invest in a risky vehicle on the stock market is not real leadership on financial planning. It simply passes the entire risk and blame for an individual not having adequate retirement savings onto that individual. Now we have the Conservatives musing about delaying the age at which Canadians are eligible for OAS from 65 to 67. How can Canadians properly expect to plan for their retirement when the government tries to change the rules of the game?
If the government were truly interested in Canadians' retirement security and in allowing Canadians to properly plan for their retirement, it would make far more sense to say categorically that it will not change the eligibility age for the OAS and commit to the NDP plan to expand the guaranteed Canada–Quebec pension plan by phasing in an affordable doubling of benefits to a maximum of $1,920 a month. This plan has been called for by provinces across the country as it would give Canadians both the ability to plan for their retirement and a guaranteed income to ensure they can retire with dignity.
Moreover, the CPP is a much safer investment than market-based private funds and consistently outperforms the market. Even business columnists, like the aforementioned Barrie McKenna at The Globe and Mail, have pointed out the benefit of such a policy, stating:
And Ottawa could beef up the CPP, mandating Canadians sock away more money for retirement, while benefiting from the CPP's low costs.
However, so far the government and the Minister of Finance in particular have not listened to this appeal for a real and proven way of ensuring Canadians can retire with dignity.
In summary, it worries me that so much time and effort will be taken up by this piece of legislation which is little more than spin carried out by the government. If this were such an important thing for the government to move forward with, I wonder why it could not be included in the financial system review act rather than being a stand-alone act. It appears to me the only reason these did not go together was that the government hoped it could get some positive media out of this legislation. However, as I have pointed out, this legislation is deeply flawed because it does so little to address the real problems affecting Canadians. This so-called solution is the equivalent to using a band-aid to fix a broken leg.
The NDP believes in real measures to protect consumers, seniors and low-income Canadians. Unfortunately, the government is not interested in anything more than spin and publicity when it comes to this issue. At a time when the government keeps talking about spending cuts, I think there are far better ways the government could spend the funds that would be spent to bring forward this proposal.
My colleagues in the official opposition and I will continue to stand up for policies that really help hard-working Canadians. Unfortunately, this is not such a policy, which is why I will be voting against the bill as presented.