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

  • B. Douglas Bernheim
  • Andrey Fradkin
  • Igor Popov

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 of these theories. 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. Depending on which theory and welfare perspective one adopts, virtually any default contribution rate may be optimal. Still, our analysis provides reasonably robust justifications for setting the default either at the highest contribution rate matched by the employer or – contrary to common wisdom – at zero. We also identify the types of empirical evidence needed to determine which case is applicable.

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File URL: http://www.nber.org/papers/w17587.pdf
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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. Dean Karlan & Margaret McConnell & Sendhil Mullainathan & Jonathan Zinman, 2010. "Getting to the Top of Mind: How Reminders Increase Saving," Working Papers 988, Economic Growth Center, Yale University.
  2. Douglas Bernheim & Antonio Rangel, 2007. "Beyond Revealed Preference Choice Theoretic Foundations for Behavioral Welfare Economics," Discussion Papers 07-031, Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research.
  3. Gabriel D. Carroll & James J. Choi & David Laibson & Brigitte C. Madrian & Andrew Metrick, 2009. "Optimal Defaults and Active Decisions," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, MIT Press, vol. 124(4), pages 1639-1674, November.
  4. James Choi & David Laibson & Brigitte Madrian & Andrew Metrick, 2003. "Passive Decisions and Potent Defaults," NBER Working Papers 9917, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  5. 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.
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