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This paper provides experimental evidence that individuals have difficulty valuing annuities, and this difficulty – rather than a preference for lump sums – can help explain observed low levels of annuity purchases. Although the median price at which people are willing to sell an annuity is close to median actuarial values, this masks notable heterogeneity in responses including substantial numbers of respondents whose responses are difficult to reconcile with optimizing behavior under any reasonable parameter assumptions. We also discover that people are willing to pay substantially less to buy a larger annuity, a result not due to liquidity constraints or endowment effects. Strikingly, we also learn that individual responses to the buy versus sell decisions are negatively correlated, an effect that is stronger for the less financially sophisticated. Our findings are consistent with boundedly rational consumers who adopt a “buy low, sell high” heuristic when faced with a complex trade-off. Moreover, at the margin, subjective valuations vary nearly one-for-one with actuarial values but are uncorrelated with utility-based measures designed to measure the insurance value of annuities. This supports the hypothesis that people use simplifying heuristics to think about annuities, rather than engaging in optimizing behavior. Results also underscore the difficulty of explaining the cross-sectional variation in annuity valuations using standard empirical models. Our findings raise doubt about whether most consumers can make optimal decisions about annuitization.
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All findings, interpretations, and conclusions of this paper represent the views of the authors and not those of the Wharton School or the Pension Research Council. ©2013 Pension Research Council of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. All rights reserved.
The research reported herein was performed pursuant to a grant from the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) funded as part of the Financial Literacy Consortium. The authors also acknowledge support provided by the Pension Research Council and Boettner Center at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and the RAND Corporation. The authors thank Caroline Tassot and Yong Yu for superb research assistance, and Tim Colvin, Tania Gutsche, and Bas Weerman for their invaluable comments and assistance on the project. Brown is a Trustee of TIAA and has served as a speaker, author or consultant for a number of financial services organizations, some of which sell annuities and other retirement income products. Mitchell is a Trustee of the Wells Fargo Advantage Funds and has received research support from TIAA-CREF.
Date Posted: 26 June 2019