The Problem of Dominated Funds

This is the second in a series of posts about the problem of excess fees charged to defined contribution retirement plans.

Retirement regulations have largely been successful in giving worker/participant defined contribution plans the opportunity to diversify.  Most plans nowadays give participants a sufficient variety of investment options that it is possible to allocate investments so as to diversify away most idiosyncratic risks.

However, the 1974 Employment Retirement Income Security Act’s (ERISA) emphasis on diversification has diverted attention from the problem of excess costs.  Courts evaluating whether plan fiduciaries have acted prudently have tended to just ask whether the plan offered a sufficient number of reasonably-priced investment opportunities.  For example, in Hecker vs. Deer & Co. (7th Cir. 2009), the 7th Circuit found it was “untenable to suggest that all of the more than 2500 publicly available investment options had excessive expense ratios.”

If You Care About Costs . . .

This is the first in a series of posts about the problem of excess fees charged to defined contribution retirement plans, a subject I’ve been researching with Quinn Curtis.  Our findings about the pervasiveness of excess fees spurred me to reassess my own retirement investments.  I was embarrassed to find that, among other things, my old Stanford University 401k was invested in “CREF Stock Account," which uses a combination of “active management, enhanced indexing and pure indexing” and charges 49 basis points (.49%) as its “Estimated Expense Charge.”  Now 49 basis points is not an outrageously high fee, but it is substantially higher than the fees charged by a low-cost index. 

So I called TIAA-CREF and asked for help in rolling over my Stanford account to a Fidelity IRA.  The TIAA CREF rollover specialist asked why I wanted a rollover, we had the follow brief exchange:

Americans Inconsistent on Financial Risk

A new paper in the American Economic Review (abstract; PDF), summarized here, finds that Americans aren't very consistent when thinking about financial risk. Liran Einav, Amy Finkelstein, Iuliana Pascu, and Mark R. Cullen, analyzing how people choose health insurance and 401(k) plans, found that "at most 30 percent of us make consistent decisions about financial risk across a variety of areas."  Their data set includes 13,000 Alcoa employees:

Because employees were making decisions in both the health-care and retirement domains, the researchers had the opportunity to see how the same individuals handled different types of choices. Or, as Finkelstein puts it, the economists could ask: “Does someone who’s willing to pay extra money to get comprehensive health insurance, who doesn’t seem willing to bear much financial exposure in a medical domain, also tend to be the one who, relative to their peers, invests more of their 401(k) in [safer] bonds rather than stocks?”

The Retirement Robbery

Since putting email back in its corral, I've turned some recovered time to reading actual books in print --- the latest being Retirement Heist: How Companies Plunder and Profit from the Nest Eggs of American Workers by Ellen E. Schultz. If a nation of sheep shall beget a government of wolves, then the lesson from Retirement Heist is that today the shears are sharpened with numbers.

Retirement Heist is, as one blurb describes, a "meticulously researched and gripping as a crime thriller." Each chapter explains, with detailed research data and outrage-generating examples, yet another method corporations use to steal retirement benefits and mask the theft behind accounting shenanigans. It is one of the few books (since Cadillac Desert) to describe outrageous behavior so well that I threw it across the room.

Early Retirement: Bad For Your Health?

Retirement ages have been trending up, as governments struggle to deal with escalating financial burdens. That might be sad news for would-be retirees -- but maybe they'll change their mind if they look at this new research from Andreas Kuhn, Jean-Philippe Wuellrich, and Josef Zweimüller. They examine the effects of early retirement on a sample of Austrian blue-collar workers:

We find that a reduction in the retirement age causes a significant increase in the risk of premature death – defined as death before age 67 – for males but not for females. The effect for males is not only statistically significant but also quantitatively important. According to our estimates, one additional year of early retirement causes an increase in the risk of premature death of 2.4 percentage points (a relative increase of about 13.4%; or 1.8 months in terms of years of life lost). In line with expectations, we find that IV estimates are considerably smaller than the simple OLS estimates, both for men and for women. This is consistent with negative health selection into retirement and underlines the importance of a proper identification strategy when estimating the causal impact of early retirement on mortality. Our results also indicate that the causal effect of early retirement on mortality for females is zero, suggesting that the negative association between retirement age and mortality in the raw data is entirely due to negative health selection. There are several reasons why male but not female blue-collar workers suffer from higher mortality (eg women may be more health-conscious and adopt less unhealthy behaviours than men; they may be more active after permanently exiting the labour market due to their higher involvement in household activities).

My Target-Date Fund Is Bigger Than Yours

We've banged the drum quite a bit on the need for greater financial literacy. If you care about such things, you might want to take a look at a new working paper by Pierluigi Balduzzi and Jonathan Reuter called "Heterogeneity in Target-Date Funds and the Pension Protection Act of 2006" (abstract; PDF).

That isn't the sexiest title ever, and if you don't care at all about personal finance or investing then you probably shouldn't go near it. But if you care even a little bit, the paper has some interesting lessons even beyond the fairly narrow focus of Target-Date Funds. A Target-Date Fund is, in a nutshell, a mutual fund whose asset allocation automatically shifts over time as the target date approaches.

Cues to Save Money

Americans have a notoriously low savings rate, a problem we explored in a podcast about prize-linked savings plans. In another podcast, "A Mouse in the Salad," Richard Thaler (author of Nudge) discussed "anchoring," a cognitive shortcut whereby we make decisions based on an anchoring number even if it is randomly generated.

A new NBER paper (ungated version here) by Yale's James J. Choi and Cade Massey, along with Emily Haisley of Barclays Bank and Jennifer Kurkoski of Google, shows that anchoring very much affects how people save (or don't save) their money.

Retirement Kills: a New Marketplace Podcast

Are you bummed out that you might have to postpone retirement for financial reasons?

Well, there may be a silver lining: it looks like retirement may be bad for your health. That's the topic of our latest Freakonomics Radio on Marketplace podcast, "Retirement Kills." (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript below.)

The Great Recession has put a lot of retirement plans on hold, often at the behest of governments who can’t afford to pay pensions. Germany, the U.K., and France have all upped their retirement ages.  And the U.S. is seeing a lot more older workers as well. Lisa Boily of the Bureau of Labor Statistics tells us that people 55 and older are expected to represent 25 percent of the labor force by 2020.

Part of this is simple demographics -- the graying of the baby boom -- but Americans are also working longer.

The Slightly-Bright Side for Boomers in the Recession

A new working paper (full version here) by Alan L. Gustman, Thomas L. Steinmeier, and Nahid Tabatabai examines the impact the Great Recession has had on the wealth and income of Baby Boomers nearing retirement. It finds, somewhat surprisingly, that their aggregate wealth decreased very little over the past few years:

The retirement wealth held by those ages 53 to 58 before the onset of the recession in 2006 declined by a relatively modest 2.8 percentage points by 2010. ... Very few in the population nearing retirement age have experienced multiple adverse events. Although most of the loss in wealth is due to a fall in the net value of housing, because very few in this cohort have found their housing wealth under water, and housing is the one asset this cohort is not likely to cash in for another decade or two, there is time for their losses in housing wealth to recover.

Would You Retire for a Buyout?

The College of Liberal Arts at UT is offering its first ever "buyout." If a faculty member retires at the end of this semester, s/he receives two years of pay as a lump sum. To be eligible, the sum of age plus years at UT must be at least 93. Of the 88 eligibles, I'm told that over 40 are taking the buyout.