In February Jane Wrightson stepped into a new role as Retirement Commissioner. A month later, she was in lockdown, watching people panic about their retirement funds.
As head of the Commission for Financial Capability, Jane Wrightson is charged with helping New Zealanders learn how to become financially resilient in case of emergency, as well as prepared for a fiscally satisfactory retirement. But the Covid-19 pandemic has shown up a concerning lack of that readiness among Kiwis, suggesting the need for a new approach to teaching financial literacy.
Hello to you in Wellington! It’s a while since you’ve made your regular commute to the CFFC’s Auckland office in Britomart, isn’t it?
Yes, I’ll start again next week on a reduced schedule. A former colleague flew to Christchurch this week and said they had to queue outside until the airport opened at 7.15am! They said there’s nothing past security, so get your coffee before security or you’ll get cross. Thank god I’ve learned that!
You’d only just started in the role of Retirement Commissioner when the lockdown began. Was the coming pandemic on your radar at all when you started?
It was four weeks after I started! But no. I’d just come back from a month back overseas between jobs and had been in the Guatemalan jungle not three weeks before. I knew there was something going on in China but because I’d been off the grid I just hadn’t clocked it at all.
How has it been, getting started in the role under these circumstances?
We’re a government agency so we didn’t have to worry about paying salaries, which is a gift. You don’t earn a great deal of money working for the government but it is relatively secure. It was more just trying to understand how we could work remotely and efficiently while trying to get my head around it as a new person. For all of us, it was more a big sense of worry about the impact on New Zealanders. The financial resilience – or the lack of it – that showed up in the first week was shocking. All that money going out on the wage subsidy in the first week. It was not the marker of a fiscally healthy country.
So the pandemic has revealed a bigger problem with financial capability in New Zealand than you were aware of?
We knew New Zealanders’ savings and resilience weren’t great. And of course there is always a pocket of New Zealanders who are in very tough times. But even putting those aside for a moment, the people who are heading towards tougher times is bigger than any of us thought. People do not have the basics [of financial resilience] yet. I was on record somewhere not long ago saying ‘This country and this agency have spent millions and millions of dollars in the last couple of decades on financial capability training and it’s clearly not working.’ It’s because we haven’t got the basics right.
Do we know why not?
It’s a really complicated picture, and I can only talk in generalisations. Let’s put aside the people in extreme financial hardship and the other end of the spectrum, the very wealthy. Middle New Zealanders and lower middle New Zealanders, because of a number of things like the state of the economy, the housing market, the rise of the gig economy, just don’t have things like the three-month safety net. Don’t have a habit of spending less than they earn. Don’t have a habit of salting away something every week, even just $5. Really basic stuff that starts to build up a plank for resilience.
Does your agency have projected figures on how the pandemic is going to affect the financial resilience of New Zealanders?
Not really. It depends on how far away you are from retirement. If you’re a long way away, it’s a blip, for sure. These are people who should not be checking their KiwiSaver accounts every day. Bad idea. It just makes you unhappy and drives you to the gin bottle. In the long run it won’t matter. Those who are closer to retirement will have taken a hit, no question. They will be in the workforce longer, they’ll have less in their accounts when they retire, and it will be difficult.
How have New Zealanders been responding to the pandemic in terms of financial behaviour?
One of the early impacts we saw was a rush to cash in KiwiSavers. That was another signal to us that people did not understand really basic financial concepts like ‘KiwiSaver is not a savings account, it’s an investment account’. Investment accounts go up and down, that’s what they do. But we’ve had 10 years of quite high growth so there’s a generation who’s never seen their KiwiSaver go down before, so there was panic.
The KiwiSaver providers have been telling us that hasn’t translated into applications, which is good. Because KiwiSaver, I think, has been the single best game-changer for retirement savings in two decades. It’s really important that people understand how it works and make sure they’re in the right kind of fund.
If there’s anything positive to come out of this experience, what might it be?
It’s a bit like giving up smoking. You want to be better, you want to do it, you research how you do it, you practice doing it, but when it comes to actually doing it, it can take quite a while. But hopefully this time will have given people time to think, or it might be like a health scare that makes people realise they really have to do something about it.
You hope that people who have had a financial fright will take the time to understand what they need to do. To try to draw up a financial plan, to look at the resources on sorted.org.nz. If you’re in dire financial straits, you should ring the Money Talks helpline. You can get one-on-one budgeting advice through that line. People will almost certainly have been spending less money, which is a chance to rethink their consumer spending. If you’ve taken a hit and you are close to retirement, you need to think about upping your savings plan. And if you’re younger, thinking about whether you can salt away another $10 a week. Just putting some thought into your own financial circumstances.
One project you’ve talked about is rebooting New Zealand’s National Strategy for Financial Capability. Could you explain that?
Before I got this job, did I know there was a ‘National Strategy for Financial Capability’? No I did not. And I thought, “That sounds amazing.” Then I looked at it and thought, “It’s okay, for what it is.” But clearly nothing much has been operationalised. What I mean by rebooting it is I want to get leaders across government, industry and the community space together to help us align the financial capability efforts in this country, because clearly it’s not working. There’s a lot of activity in the space – the banks do stuff, the insurance companies do stuff, we do stuff, community groups do stuff and the government funds stuff, but it’s all unaligned, which is silly, and wastes resources. For example, there’s a digital organisation called Banqer that provides information straight to students, gamification stuff, which is fabulous. We both need to align our work. In the past we’ve taken a competitive approach, which we can’t afford to do. So the job I’ve got to do is get people to agree to a roadmap and figure out which parts we all play, so we can absolutely see what impact we’re having.