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Social Security Benefits: An Empirical Study of Expectations and Realizations

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  • B. Douglas Bernheim

Abstract

I employ data drawn from the Retirement History Survey to study the accuracy of pre-retirement expectations concerning social security benefits. The major findings of this study are as follows. First, survey responses to questions about expected benefits are reasonably noisy. However, when one properly filters out the noise, reported forecasts appear to explain roughly 60% of the variance in realizations. Second, consumers do not form expectations on the basis of all available information. Proper adjustment of forecasts for information contained in concurrent social security entitlements could reduce the residual forecast error variance by roughly 15%. The potential gains from incorporating other information are minimal. Third, individuals do not ignore or forget information which they have used in the past, and they tend to form all expectations on the basis of the same information. Fourth, expectations are highly accurate, given the information that people do use. Extreme optimism is uncommon. Surprisingly, expectations were not abnormally inaccurate during periods of rapid legislative change. Fifth, of various population subgroups, widows and single women tend to make both the most conservative and most accurate forecasts. Married men are least conservative and least accurate. Accuracy and conservativism are not systematically related to wealth or education. Finally, individual behavior appears to conform more closely to the predictions of theory as retirement approaches.

Suggested Citation

  • B. Douglas Bernheim, 1987. "Social Security Benefits: An Empirical Study of Expectations and Realizations," NBER Working Papers 2257, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:2257
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    1. Gramlich, Edward M, 1983. "Models of Inflation Expectations Formation: A Comparison of Household and Economist Forecasts," Journal of Money, Credit and Banking, Blackwell Publishing, vol. 15(2), pages 155-173, May.
    2. B. Douglas Bernheim, 1989. "The Timing of Retirement: A Comparison of Expectations and Realizations," NBER Chapters,in: The Economics of Aging, pages 335-358 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    3. B. Douglas Bernheim, 1987. "Dissaving after Retirement: Testing the Pure Life Cycle Hypothesis," NBER Chapters,in: Issues in Pension Economics, pages 237-280 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
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    Cited by:

    1. Mastrobuoni, Giovanni, 2011. "The role of information for retirement behavior: Evidence based on the stepwise introduction of the Social Security Statement," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 95(7), pages 913-925.
    2. Olivia S. Mitchell, "undated". "Retirement Systems in Developed and Developing Countries: Institutional Features, Economic Effects, and Lessons for Economies in Transition," Pension Research Council Working Papers 94-3, Wharton School Pension Research Council, University of Pennsylvania.
    3. Alan L. Gustman & Thomas L. Steinmeier, 1999. "What People Don't Know About Their Pensions and Social Security: An Analysis Using Linked Data from the Health and Retirement Study," NBER Working Papers 7368, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    4. John Rust & Christopher Phelan, 1997. "How Social Security and Medicare Affect Retirement Behavior in a World of Incomplete Markets," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 65(4), pages 781-832, July.
    5. B. Douglas Bernheim, 1990. "How Do the Elderly Form Expectations? An Analysis of Responses to New Information," NBER Chapters,in: Issues in the Economics of Aging, pages 259-286 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    6. Krueger, Alan B & Pischke, Jorn-Steffen, 1992. "The Effect of Social Security on Labor Supply: A Cohort Analysis of the Notch Generation," Journal of Labor Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 10(4), pages 412-437, October.
    7. Benitez-Silva, Hugo & Dwyer, Debra S., 2006. "Expectation formation of older married couples and the rational expectations hypothesis," Labour Economics, Elsevier, vol. 13(2), pages 191-218, April.
    8. Alan L. Gustman & F. Thomas Juster, 1995. "Income and Wealth of Older American Households: Modeling Issues for Public Policy Analysis," NBER Working Papers 4996, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    9. B. Douglas Bernheim, 1989. "The Timing of Retirement: A Comparison of Expectations and Realizations," NBER Chapters,in: The Economics of Aging, pages 335-358 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    10. Jeff Dominitz & Charles F. Manski & Jordan Heinz, 2002. "Social Security Expectations and Retirement Savings Decisions," NBER Working Papers 8718, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    11. Arthur B. Kennickell & Martha Starr-McCluer & Annika E. Sunden, "undated". "Saving and Financial Planning: Some Findings from a Focus Group," Finance and Economics Discussion Series 1996-01, Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (U.S.).
    12. M. Baldini & C. Mazzaferro & P. Onofri, 2015. "Pension expectations and reality. What do Italian workers know about their future public pension benefits?," Working Papers wp1007, Dipartimento Scienze Economiche, Universita' di Bologna.
    13. Jeff Dominitz & Charles F. Manski & Jordan Heinz, 2003. ""Will Social Security Be There For You?": How Americans Perceive Their Benefits," NBER Working Papers 9798, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    14. Alan L. Gustman & Thomas L. Steinmeier, 2001. "Imperfect Knowledge, Retirement and Saving," NBER Working Papers 8406, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    15. Gordon B.T. Mermin & Richard W. Johnson & Dan Murphy, 2006. "Why Do Boomers Plan to Work So Long?," Working Papers, Center for Retirement Research at Boston College wp2006-19, Center for Retirement Research, revised Nov 2006.
    16. Hugo Benítez-Silva & Debra S. Dwyer, 2003. "What to Expect when you are Expecting Rationality: Testing Rational Expectations using Micro Data," Working Papers wp037, University of Michigan, Michigan Retirement Research Center.
    17. Alberto Arenas de Mesa & David Bravo & Jere R. Behrman & Olivia S. Mitchell & Petra E. Todd, 2006. "The Chilean Pension Reform Turns 25: Lessons From the Social Protection Survey," NBER Working Papers 12401, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    18. Martha Starr-McCluer & Annika E. Sunden, 1999. "Workers' knowledge of their pension coverage: a reevaluation," Finance and Economics Discussion Series 1999-05, Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (U.S.).

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