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[TOKYO] Having spent more than three years and trillions of dollars in a losing battle against deflation, the Bank of Japan is hoping that a little financial education will convince a nation of inveterate savers to put their cash to better use.
More than half of Japan's 1,746 trillion yen (S$21.9 trillion) in financial assets are held in cash or deposits, compared with 15 per cent for the United States, and even in elementary school, nearly two-thirds of children save their pocket money rather than spend it, according to a survey.
That attitude has resisted the BOJ's unprecedented monetary easing programme, currently running at 80 trillion yen a year, which was designed to lift prices, encourage consumption, and get the economy moving after decades of deflation and stagnation.
The programme has failed to achieve its goals, but the central bank still wants to persuade savers to put their cash in more productive investments, such as stocks, which should provide better pension prospects for a population where 30 per cent will be over 65 in 2020.
But even with returns on cash at zero, households cut their stock holdings by 16.6 per cent in June from a year earlier.
This year the bank conducted a comprehensive survey on financial literacy targeting 25,000 households nationwide, and the results showed less than a third had ever invested in stocks, and 80 per cent would not risk investing in assets with potential for significant returns.
Now it is trying to chip away at that reticence by organising free financial seminars and encouraging other institutions to improve the nation's financial understanding.
"The survey showed strong risk-aversion is a key feature of Japanese households," said Noriaki Kawamura, head of a BOJ group promoting financial literacy. "Financial education is important from the perspective of shifting funds out of savings into asset management," said Mr Kawamura, who is also director of the Central Council for Financial Services Information (CCFSI), a body administered by the BOJ and which conducted the survey.
Financial literacy was identified by the G-20 economies as a policy priority after reckless lending to US households led to the subprime crisis that rocked the global economy last decade, but Japan remains an international laggard.
Very few schools teach finance, and respondents in the BOJ survey scored worse on comparable questions than US peers, who were three times more likely to have received some financial education.
"I would have loved to take a course, but the opportunity was never there," said Sono Muro, a 42-year-old office worker who said she only trusts cash and insurance products after the global crisis.
That could now be changing.
Tabloids and television talk shows ran features on the BOJ survey, which ranked Japan's 47 prefectures on financial literacy scores, prompting local officials to act.
In the lowest-ranking prefecture of Yamanashi, bureaucrats and schools are collaborating to enhance financial literacy.
In November, local financial entities conducted a series of seminars organised by the regional branch of the BOJ's CCFSI to help households prepare for retirement and invest wisely.
They also began assisting local universities on financial education.
"The survey really made everyone realise that something needs to be done," said Atsushi Takeuchi, the BOJ's Yamanashi branch manager, who is spear-heading efforts to enhance financial literacy in the prefecture. "It will take time for our efforts to bear fruit, but we're doing whatever we can," said Mr Takeuchi, who is asked to speak at seminars on financial education about once a week.
Iwate prefecture, which ranked 31st in the list, also increased high school financial education programmes and plans to offer more university courses on financial literacy.
The BOJ plans to conduct a follow-up survey in the next few years, partly to encourage prefectures to keep at it.
It will also renovate its website on Dec 31 to make it more accessible to non-financial professionals.
The hope is to have more people think like Seijiro Katsura, a 44-year-old office worker who, despite a few past losses, invests 40 per cent of his savings in stocks to build up a nest-egg for retirement. He is now interested in foreign bonds, too. "I don't fret much about short-term losses and try to think of it as a tuition fee to learn how to invest wisely," he said.
But some, including former BOJ official Nobuyasu Atago, now chief economist at Okasan Securities, thinks the bank's teaching mission could be wishful thinking. "Financial education is important, but I wonder how much change it will bring. If years of massive monetary easing didn't change things, what could?" And for others, the drive is just too late to overcome the culture of a lifetime.
"The last thing I would do is to take on risk, even if interest rates are this low," said Tetsuya Yamamoto, a 63-year-old pensioner. "Stocks move on factors you can't control, and that makes me worried. I'm happy living off what I already have," he said.