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Who Chooses Defined Contribution Plans?

  • Jeffrey R. Brown
  • Scott J. Weisbenner

This paper provides new evidence on what types of individuals are most likely to choose a defined contribution (DC) plan over a defined benefit (DB) plan. Making use of administrative data from the State Universities Retirement System (SURS) of Illinois, we study the decisions of nearly 50,000 new employees who make a one-time, irrevocable choice between a traditional DB plan, a portable DB plan, and an entirely self-managed DC plan. Because the SURS-covered earnings of these employees are not covered under the Social Security system, their choices provides insight into the DB vs. DC preferences of individuals with regard to a primary source of their retirement income. We find that a majority of participants fail to make an active decision and are thus defaulted into the traditional DB plan after 6 months. We also find that those individuals who are most likely to be financially sophisticated are most likely to choose the self-managed DC plan, despite the fact that, given plan parameters, the DC plan is inferior to the portable DB plan under reasonable assumptions about future financial market returns. We discuss both rational and behavioral reasons that might explain this finding.

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File URL: http://www.nber.org/papers/w12842.pdf
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Paper provided by National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc in its series NBER Working Papers with number 12842.

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Date of creation: Jan 2007
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Publication status: published as Brown, Jeffrey, Jeffrey Liebman and David A. Wise (eds.) Social Security Policy in a Changing Environment. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.
Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:12842
Note: AG
Contact details of provider: Postal: National Bureau of Economic Research, 1050 Massachusetts Avenue Cambridge, MA 02138, U.S.A.
Phone: 617-868-3900
Web page: http://www.nber.orgEmail:


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  1. Robert L. Clark & Linda S. Ghent & Ann A. McDermed, 2006. "Pension Plan Choice among University Faculty," Southern Economic Journal, Southern Economic Association, vol. 72(3), pages 560-577, January.
  2. James J. Choi & David Laibson & Brigitte C. Madrian & Andrew Metrick, 2002. "For Better or For Worse: Default Effects and 401(k) Savings Behavior," JCPR Working Papers 256, Northwestern University/University of Chicago Joint Center for Poverty Research.
  3. Brigitte C. Madrian & Dennis F. Shea, 2001. "THE POWER OF SUGGESTION: INERTIA IN 401(k) PARTICIPATION AND SAVINGS BEHAVIOR," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, MIT Press, vol. 116(4), pages 1149-1187, November.
  4. Zvi Bodie & Alan J. Marcus & Robert C. Merton, 1988. "Defined Benefit versus Defined Contribution Pension Plans: What are the Real Trade-offs?," NBER Chapters, in: Pensions in the U.S. Economy, pages 139-162 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  5. Emmanuel Saez & Esther Duflo, 2003. "The role of information and social interactions in retirement plan decisions: Evidence from a randomized experiment," Framed Field Experiments 00141, The Field Experiments Website.
  6. Esther Duflo & Emmanuel Saez, 2000. "Participation and Investment Decisions in a Retirement Plan: The Influence of Colleagues' Choices," NBER Working Papers 7735, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  7. Robert J. Shiller, 2005. "The Life-Cycle Personal Accounts Proposal for Social Security: An Evaluation," Cowles Foundation Discussion Papers 1504, Cowles Foundation for Research in Economics, Yale University.
  8. Papke, Leslie E., 2004. "Pension Plan Choice in the Public Sector: The Case of Michigan State Employees," National Tax Journal, National Tax Association, vol. 57(2), pages 329-39, June.
  9. Esther Duflo & Emmanuel Saez, 2002. "The Role of Information and Social Interactions in Retirement Plan Decisions: Evidence from a Randomized Experiment," NBER Working Papers 8885, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
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