Talent Management Column

The Retirement Knowledge Gap

Are you really helping your employees understand and save for their retirement? Chances are you're not.

Monday, April 22, 2013
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The relationship between employers and employees has changed sharply over the past few decades. One aspect of this change has been giving employees greater responsibility and greater control over many aspects of their work life. This shift is, perhaps, most notable in the area of retirement plans. These plans have shifted from defined-benefit pension plans, where employees have few decisions to make and have also face few risks, to defined-contribution plans and others like it, where employees have to make investment decisions that are associated with considerable risk.

The idea that employees should make their own decisions does not suggest that employers aren't concerned about employees making mistakes, of course. How much help we should give employees in making those decisions is a tricky topic, as everyone in the benefits business knows, because employers face legal risks when providing  what can be seen as financial advice.

Helping employees understand how to think about these choices is another matter, however. My colleague, Olivia Mitchell and Annamaria Lusardi, reviewed what we know about the financial literacy of the population, understanding the basic concepts that allow one to make sensible financial decisions. And the results are not pretty.

The three concepts that seem to matter most are: understanding inflation, compound interest and the reduction in risk associated with portfolios. These may sound complicated, but what we mean here is simply understanding the basic ideas. Here are the questions used to assess that knowledge among a random sample of residents of the United States over age 50; those for whom these retirement investment decisions really matter:

1: Suppose you had $100 in a savings account and the interest rate was 2 percent per year. After five years, how much do you think you would have in the account if you left the money to grow: [more than $102, exactly $102, less than $102?]

2:  Imagine that the interest rate on your savings account was 1 percent per year and inflation was 2 percent per year. After one year, would you be able to buy: [more than, exactly the same as, or less than today with the money in this account?]

3: Do you think that the following statement is true or false? 'Buying a single company stock usually provides a safer return than a stock mutual fund.'

It is easy to see why these concepts matter in practice. If one doesn't understand inflation, it may make sense to park your investments in a low-yield savings account, but then watch inflation eat away their value. Or, put all your investments in a single company's stock, risking your financial ruin if that company fails. Or, "roll" loans - i.e. delay payments -- while compounding interest rates and penalties make it difficult to ever repay them. Not surprisingly, extensive research finds that people with a poor understanding of concepts like these have much worse financial outcomes. They are also more likely to be caught up in scams.

Only half of the respondents got the first question right; guessing would give you the correct answer a third of the time. Only one in three got all of the questions right. Other studies also show that women do worse on financial-literacy tests like these than do men, and the really bad news may be the fact that older individuals, who need this kind of understanding the most, are worse at it than their younger colleagues. Yet, they are even more overconfident about their financial literacy than those who are younger. Given what we know about psychology, this overconfidence may not be surprising: We fool ourselves into being overconfident about things that are threatening to us, as a way to stave off worry. So the people who need help the most may be the least likely to seek it.

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The employers most likely to worry about their employees on these matters also probably have employees who are better informed and are less in need of help in understanding these basic financial concepts.

But these results remind us of a few things. First, the people who need help the most may be the least likely to ask for it. Simply offering help to those who request it may not do all that much good. Second, there are real consequences -- all bad -- for people who do not understand the most basic concepts associated with investing. Third, as with most things in life, the biggest gains come from getting the most basic knowledge. It does not take very much information to be a lot better off. Nor does it take much time or effort to teach employees the three concepts cited above.

Peter Cappelli is the George W. Taylor Professor of Management and director of the Center for Human Resources at The Wharton School. His latest book is Why Good People Can't Get Jobs: The Skills Gap and What Companies Can Do About It.


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