Is Conflicted Investment Advice Better than No Advice?

John Chalmers, Jonathan Reuter

NBER Working Paper No. 18158
Issued in June 2012
NBER Program(s):   AG

The answer depends on how broker clients would have invested in the absence of broker recommendations. To identify counterfactual retirement portfolios, we exploit time-series variation in access to brokers by new plan participants. When brokers are available, they are chosen by new participants who value recommendations on asset allocation and fund selection because they are less financially experienced. When brokers are no longer available, demand for target-date funds (TDFs) increases differentially among participants with the highest predicted demand for brokers. Broker client portfolios earn significantly lower risk-adjusted returns and Sharpe ratios than matched portfolios based on TDFs—due in part to broker fees that average 0.90% per year—but offer similar levels of risk. More generally, the portfolios of participants with high predicted demand for brokers who lack access to brokers comparable favorably to the portfolios of similar participants who had access to brokers when they joined. Exploiting across-fund variation in the level of broker fees, we find that broker clients allocate more dollars to higher fee funds. This finding increases our confidence that actual broker client portfolios reflect broker recommendations, and it highlights an agency conflict that can be eliminated when TDFs replace brokers.

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This paper was revised on September 22, 2015

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w18158

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