NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH
NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH

The Welfare Economics of Default Options in 401(k) Plans

B. Douglas Bernheim, Andrey Fradkin, Igor Popov

NBER Working Paper No. 17587
Issued in November 2011
NBER Program(s):   PE

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.

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An data appendix is available at http://www.nber.org/data-appendix/w17587

This paper was revised on March 31, 2015

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w17587

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