Art of Dice that spell out the word "fees"

Behavior

Oddly, the Educated Pay Higher Fees

It’s smart to invest retirement savings in mutual funds that charge very low fees for one simple reason: the worker keeps more of his money and hands over less to Wall Street.

But in a study of people in their 50s and 60s who have retired or otherwise left federal employment, the people with the most education and the best scores on a standardized test were more likely to make what seems to be the wrong decision. Rather than keep their retirement funds in the government’s Thrift Savings Plan (TSP), which has extremely low fees, they transferred the money to much higher-fee IRAs operated by financial companies.

The $500 billion TSP – the world’s largest defined contribution retirement plan – is inexpensive in large part because it invests only in index mutual funds, which automatically track a variety of stock and bond market indexes and avoid the need to pay money managers to pick the investments. The annual fees for TSP’s index funds – known as expense ratios – are under 0.04 percent of the investor’s assets.

But over a 10-year period, about one fourth of the former federal employees rolled over the money saved during their careers into IRAs that typically had much higher expense ratios: 0.57 percent. On top of that, IRAs often charge additional fees for investment advice, pushing the potential total annual fees to well in excess of 1.5 percent. It’s possible that investing in an IRA could generate enough returns to make the extra fees worthwhile, but research has shown this is not the norm.

What explains the rollover decision? More educated people tend to have larger retirement account balances, raising the possibility that they were either seeking out financial advice or were targeted by advisors’ sales pitches. However, even among people with similar balances, those with more education were still more likely to roll over to IRAs.

It’s possible that they “perceive that they know what they’re doing” and want to take control of their investments “even when higher fees result,” the researchers said. …Learn More

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Behavior

Does Increased Debt Offset 401k Savings?

Roughly half of U.S. employers with a 401(k) plan enroll their workers automatically, deducting money from their paychecks for retirement unless they explicitly opt out of this arrangement. This strategy is widely viewed as a good way to get people to save.

But auto-enrollment might not be as effective as it seems, if individuals are compensating for a smaller paycheck by borrowing more.

A new study of civilian employees of the U.S. Army used credit and payroll data to gauge whether debt increased for employees who were automatically enrolled in the federal government’s retirement savings plan. The researchers compared changes in debt levels for people hired after the government’s 2010 adoption of auto-enrollment with hires prior to 2010.

The good news is that since the broadest debt category, which includes high-rate credit cards, did not increase, it did not offset the employees’ accumulated contributions. Their credit reports showed no increase in financial distress either, the study concluded.

However, the findings for car and home loans were ambiguous, so auto-enrollment “may raise these latter types of debt,” said the researchers, who are affiliated with NBER’s Retirement and Disability Research Center.

If workers are, in fact, borrowing more, the question, again, is whether the new debt is offsetting the additional savings under auto-enrollment. Auto and home loans – in contrast to credit cards – are used to finance an asset that has long-term value. Whether these forms of debt improve or erode net worth depends on the asset’s value and whether the value rises (say, a house in a growing city) or falls (a car after it’s driven off the lot).

The researchers did not have access to data on federal workers’ assets, which they would need to see what’s happening to their net worth. This remains an important question for future research. …Learn More

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Field Work

Financial Boot Camp Helps Army Enlisted

A U.S. Army requirement that newly enlisted men and women complete an ambitious personal finance course is having some impressive results.

At a time when financial education is increasingly being criticized as an ineffective way to raise Americans’ low saving rate, an 8-hour course held on 13 Army bases is significantly boosting how much military personnel are saving for their retirement – among both big and small savers. They also trimmed their debts.

The strong results, described in a new study by William Skimmyhorn, an assistant professor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, are also sending a ripple through the financial literacy community.

“The reason this study is so interesting is because it’s so unusual,” said Harvard University’s Brigitte Madrian, co-director of the household finance working group for the National Bureau of Economic Research. “There aren’t a lot of other scientific studies one can point to” that show empirically that financial education can improve an individual’s well-being, she said. …Learn More

Field Work

Financial Education Strategies Need Work

Brigitte Madrian

In a September paper distributed by the National Bureau of Economic Research, Professor Brigitte Madrian and her co-authors reviewed the current state of U.S. financial education. In an interview, Madrian, a professor in Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, provided some fresh insights into education, regulation, and the role of the financial industry.

Q: Besides low financial literacy, why do people make bad financial decisions?

A: Procrastination. Inattention – one reason people accrue credit card late fees is that they forget to pay their bills on time. Advertising – people are swayed by the marketing of financial services and products. Not all products pushed by financial advisers or financial-services companies are appropriate for everyone, and sometimes people are swayed into purchasing products that may be right for someone else but aren’t right for them.

Q: Does financial education even work?

A: I believe the jury is out. We do not have a lot of compelling evidence on the impact of financial literacy programs. There have been lots of studies on programs, but many of them are of dubious scientific validity. Of the ones that are more credible in terms of methodology, some find very little impact on financial education and a handful find financially positive effects. …

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Money Culture

Unseen Risks Challenge Consumers

Financial-product complexity isn’t talked about on Capitol Hill, where Congress is arming itself for battle royale over the appointment of Harvard Law School professor Elizabeth Warren to head the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

But some economics and business professors are sticking up for the financial consumer, who they say faces an “ever-widening set of financial options” and “dizzying amount of information.”

“Households are expected to make decisions about pension plan contributions and payouts, to choose from a wide array of credit instruments to fund everything from home purchase to short-term cash needs, and more generally to assume a greater level of responsibility for their financial well-being,” Harvard economists Brigitte Madrian and John Campbell, Harvard Law professor Howell Jackson, and Peter Tufano at the Harvard Business School wrote in a recent paper.

“There is growing evidence that consumers make avoidable financial mistakes” with “nontrivial financial consequences,” they said.

Published in the latest issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, the paper used three case studies to support their call for more creative regulation: mortgages, payday loans, and 401(k)s. …Learn More