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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 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.

Suggested Citation

  • B. Douglas Bernheim & Andrey Fradkin & Igor Popov, 2011. "The Welfare Economics of Default Options in 401(k) Plans," NBER Working Papers 17587, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:17587
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    References listed on IDEAS

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    1. 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.
    2. Stefano DellaVigna & Ulrike Malmendier, 2004. "Contract Design and Self-Control: Theory and Evidence," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 119(2), pages 353-402.
    3. Dean Karlan & Margaret McConnell & Sendhil Mullainathan & Jonathan Zinman, 2016. "Getting to the Top of Mind: How Reminders Increase Saving," Management Science, INFORMS, vol. 62(12), pages 3393-3411, December.
    4. 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.
    5. Gabriel D. Carroll & James J. Choi & David Laibson & Brigitte C. Madrian & Andrew Metrick, 2009. "Optimal Defaults and Active Decisions," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 124(4), pages 1639-1674.
    6. Erin Todd Bronchetti & Thomas S. Dee & David B. Hufman & Ellen Magenheim, 2013. "When a Nudge Isn’t Enough: Defaults and Saving Among Low-Income Tax Filers," National Tax Journal, National Tax Association;National Tax Journal, vol. 66(3), pages 609-634, September.
    7. Dan Ariely & George Loewenstein & Drazen Prelec, 2003. ""Coherent Arbitrariness": Stable Demand Curves Without Stable Preferences," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 118(1), pages 73-106.
    8. B. Douglas Bernheim & Antonio Rangel, 2009. "Beyond Revealed Preference: Choice-Theoretic Foundations for Behavioral Welfare Economics," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 124(1), pages 51-104.
    9. B. Douglas Bernheim & Andrey Fradkin & Igor Popov, 2015. "The Welfare Economics of Default Options in 401(k) Plans," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 105(9), pages 2798-2837, September.
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    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • D03 - Microeconomics - - General - - - Behavioral Microeconomics: Underlying Principles
    • D14 - Microeconomics - - Household Behavior - - - Household Saving; Personal Finance
    • D60 - Microeconomics - - Welfare Economics - - - General
    • D91 - Microeconomics - - Micro-Based Behavioral Economics - - - Role and Effects of Psychological, Emotional, Social, and Cognitive Factors on Decision Making
    • J26 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Demand and Supply of Labor - - - Retirement; Retirement Policies

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