The Knowledge Gap in Workplace Retirement Investing and the Role of Professional Advisors

by Jill E. Fisch, Tess Wilkinson-Ryan & Kristin Firth

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Abstract

The dramatic shift from traditional pension plans to participant-directed 401(k) plans has increased the obligation of individual investors to take responsibility for their own retirement planning. With this shift comes increasing evidence that investors are making poor investment decisions.

This Article seeks to uncover the reasons for poor investment decisions. We use a simulated retirement investing task and a new financial literacy index to evaluate the role of financial literacy in retirement investment decisionmaking in a group of nonexpert participants. Our results suggest that individual employees often lack the skills necessary to support the current model of participant-directed investing. We show that less knowledgeable participants allocate too little money to equity, engage in naive diversification, fail to identify dominated funds, and are inattentive to fees. Over the duration of a retirement account, these mistakes can cost investors hundreds of thousands of dollars.

We then explore the capacity of professional advisors to mitigate this problem. Using the same study with a group of professional advisors, we document a predictable but nonetheless dramatic knowledge gap between professionals and ordinary investors. The professional advisors were far more financially literate and made better choices among investment alternatives. Our results highlight the potential value of professional advice in mitigating the effects of financial illiteracy in retirement planning. Our findings suggest that, in weighing the costs of heightened regulation against the value of reducing possible conflicts of interest, regulators need to be sensitive to the knowledge gap.

The Knowledge Gap in Workplace Retirement Investing and the Role of Professional Advisors

by Jill E. Fisch, Tess Wilkinson-Ryan & Kristin Firth

Click here for a PDF file of this article

Abstract

The dramatic shift from traditional pension plans to participant-directed 401(k) plans has increased the obligation of individual investors to take responsibility for their own retirement planning. With this shift comes increasing evidence that investors are making poor investment decisions.

This Article seeks to uncover the reasons for poor investment decisions. We use a simulated retirement investing task and a new financial literacy index to evaluate the role of financial literacy in retirement investment decisionmaking in a group of nonexpert participants. Our results suggest that individual employees often lack the skills necessary to support the current model of participant-directed investing. We show that less knowledgeable participants allocate too little money to equity, engage in naive diversification, fail to identify dominated funds, and are inattentive to fees. Over the duration of a retirement account, these mistakes can cost investors hundreds of thousands of dollars.

We then explore the capacity of professional advisors to mitigate this problem. Using the same study with a group of professional advisors, we document a predictable but nonetheless dramatic knowledge gap between professionals and ordinary investors. The professional advisors were far more financially literate and made better choices among investment alternatives. Our results highlight the potential value of professional advice in mitigating the effects of financial illiteracy in retirement planning. Our findings suggest that, in weighing the costs of heightened regulation against the value of reducing possible conflicts of interest, regulators need to be sensitive to the knowledge gap.