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The Welfare Economics of Default Options in 401(k) Plans

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  • B. Douglas Bernheim
  • Andrey Fradkin
  • Igor Popov

Abstract

Default contribution rates for 401(k) pension plans powerfully influence workers’ choices. Potential causes include opt-out costs, procrastination, inattention, and psychological anchoring. We examine the welfare implications of defaults under each theory using the framework for behavioral welfare economics developed by Bernheim and Rangel (2009). We show how the optimal default, the magnitude of the welfare effects, and the degree of normative ambiguity depend on the behavioral model, the scope of the choice domain deemed welfare-relevant, the use of penalties for passive choice, and other 401(k) plan features. In some settings, non-participation emerges as the optimal default, contrary to common wisdom.

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Bibliographic Info

Paper provided by National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc in its series NBER Working Papers with number 17587.

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Date of creation: Nov 2011
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Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:17587

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  1. Carroll, Gabriel D. & Choi, James J. & Laibson, David I. & Madrian, Brigitte & Metrick, Andrew, 2009. "Optimal Defaults and Active Decisions," Scholarly Articles 4686776, Harvard University Department of Economics.
  2. James J. Choi & David Laibson & Brigitte C. Madrian & Andrew Metrick, 2005. "Passive Decisions and Potent Defaults," NBER Chapters, in: Analyses in the Economics of Aging, pages 59-78 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  3. Erin Todd Bronchetti & Thomas S. Dee & David B. Huffman & Ellen Magenheim, 2011. "When a Nudge Isn’t Enough: Defaults and Saving Among Low-Income Tax Filers," NBER Working Papers 16887, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  4. Douglas Bernheim & Antonio Rangel, 2007. "Beyond Revealed Preference Choice Theoretic Foundations for Behavioral Welfare Economics," Discussion Papers, Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research 07-031, Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research.
  5. Dean Karlan & Margaret McConnell & Sendhil Mullainathan & Jonathan Zinman, 2010. "Getting to the Top of Mind: How Reminders Increase Saving," NBER Working Papers 16205, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
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Cited by:
  1. Burman, Leonard E. & Coe, Norma B. & Dworsky, Michael & Gale, William G., 2012. "Effects Of Public Policies On The Disposition Of Pre-Retirement Lump-Sum Distributions: Rational And Behavioral Influences," National Tax Journal, National Tax Association, vol. 65(4), pages 863-87, December.
  2. Gopi Shah Goda & Colleen Flaherty Manchester & Aaron Sojourner, 2012. "What Will My Account Really Be Worth? An Experiment on Exponential Growth Bias and Retirement Saving," NBER Working Papers 17927, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.

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