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Rice University research finds that investors might have a bias towards the number zero

Investors gravitate toward funds ending in the number zero over those ending in the number five, a Rice University researcher finds. Because of this tendency, some investors expose themselves to financial risk and loss of wealth. Photo via Getty Images

When the Dow Jones Industrial Average hit 18,000 a few years back, the nicely rounded number dominated the news. When teens take the SAT, those who just miss scoring a round number are more likely to seek a do-over. And, research shows, major league baseball players are four times more likely to end their seasons with a .300 batting average than a .299.

There's something irresistible about figures ending in zero. But does that extend to our decision-making? Does our instinctive love for round numbers affect our financial plans?

The answer is yes, says Rice Business professor Ajay Kalra. Along with Xiao Liu of NYU Stern and Wei Zhang of Iowa State University, Kalra looked at data from thousands of investors in Target Retirement Funds (TRFs), which generally assume retirement at age 65 and ask employees to pick a fund with a year ending either in zero or five (e.g., 2040, 2045) that is nearest to their planned retirement date.

Investors whose birth year doesn't already end in zero or five must round up or round down to choose their TRF.

The zeros clearly win investors' hearts. Succumbing to what the researchers call "zero bias," investors consistently choose to sink their retirement dollars into funds that end in zero, not five. For many of the investors Kalra and his team looked at, especially older people, men and those with higher incomes, this meant choosing a retirement age of 60 or 70 rather than the standard 65.

The choice was often costly. Many investors who rounded up or down to find a fund year ending in zero exposed themselves to real financial risk.

That's because TRFs are graded portfolios — meaning they start out stock-heavy, move to a mix of stocks and bonds and finally emphasize bonds. Investors who rounded down for a too-young retirement target gave themselves less time to benefit from a stock-dominant portfolio. Investors who rounded up for a too-old retirement target ending in zero contributed less money to their retirement because they assumed they had more time to invest. Investors who rounded down did worse than those who rounded up.

Who is most susceptible to losing hard-earned retirement dollars this way? The researchers looked at people born from the 1950s through the 1980s. Of these investors, those born in years ending between three and seven selected the appropriate fund. The zero bias was prevalent in those born in years ending in eight or nine, who tended to project their retirement age as 60, and those born in years that ended in zero, one or two, who favored retiring at 70.

Overall, the researchers discovered, 34 percent of people born in years ending in eight or nine picked retirement funds that targeted too-early retirement — and ended up financially worse off. Meanwhile, 29 percent of investors born in years ending in the numbers zero, one or two picked later TRFs. With the exception of those who were risk averse, these investors ended up better off than those who chose too-early TRFs. Overall, however, investors who picked funds with mismatched retirement dates (that is, inconsistent with retirement at 65), saw more losses than gains.

The infatuation with zero held up even when the researchers replicated their study in an experimental setting. So they tried something different: they presented participants with math problems to coax a "calculative mindset." It worked. Rather than gravitating to zeros, these investors chose retirement funds that matched their ages. Straight talk in the form of a 30-minute one-on-one financial planning session helped too. At least some investors who got this counseling made better choices.

Rounding up or down to zero can be a nice mental shortcut when stakes are low and time is short. There are good reasons, for example, to go for the zero in calculating sales tax when you're buying a book, or tallying how many party guests want cake.

But when it comes to life savings, instinct-based math can be trouble. Financial firms should be aware of this and discourage preference for the shiny number zero. Advisors should nudge clients toward funds that will truly enhance earnings. Most important, however, investors themselves need to keep their heads, think of the future and resist the allure of round numbers.

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This story originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom. It's based on research by Ajay Kalra, a professor of marketing at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

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Building Houston

 
 

5G could be taking over Texas — and Houston is leading the way. Photo via Getty Images

Based on one key measure, Houston sits at the forefront of a telecom revolution that could spark a regional economic impact of more than $30 billion.

Data published recently by the Texas Comptroller's Office points out that as of last November and December, Houston led all cities in Texas for the number of so-called "small cells." Small cells are a key component in the rollout of ultra-high-speed 5G wireless communication throughout the Houston area and the country.

As the Texas Comptroller's Office explains, small cells are low-powered antennas that communicate wirelessly via radio waves. They're usually installed on existing public infrastructure like street signs or utility poles, instead of the big communication towers that transmit 4G signals.

The comptroller's tally shows Houston had approved 5,455 small-cell sites as of the November-December timeframe. That dwarfs the total number of sites (1,948) for the state's second-ranked city, Dallas.

"Houston is in the vanguard of small cell permitting in Texas, and not just because it's the state's largest city; advocates have lauded its proactive approach to 5G. Other cities, particularly smaller ones, are lagging well behind," the Comptroller's Office notes.

According to CTIA, a trade group for the wireless communications industry, 5G holds the promise to deliver an economic impact of $30.3 billion in the Houston area and create 93,700 jobs. The group says industries such as health care, energy, transportation, e-commerce, and logistics stand to benefit from the emergence of 5G.

"Maintaining world-class communications infrastructure is a requirement for success in a rapidly changing global economy. Small cells and fiber technology are the key foundational components for network densification and robust 5G. Cities like Houston that have embraced the need for this infrastructure will see the benefits of 5G faster than others," Mandy Derr, government affairs director at Houston-based communications infrastructure REIT Crown Castle International Corp. and a member of the Texas 5G Alliance, tells InnovationMap.

Derr says leaders in Houston have embraced the importance of small-cell technology through "reasonable and effective" regulations and processes aimed at boosting 5G capabilities. Three major providers of wireless service — AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon — offer 5G to customers in the Houston area.

"More small cells and fiber provide greater and faster access for the masses, enabling the connectivity that is essential to our businesses today — whether it's accepting payments on a mobile card reader, completing a sale on the go, or reliably reaching consumers where they are," Derr says.

In a blog post, Netrality Data Centers, which operates a data center in Houston, proclaims that Houston is shaping up to be a hub of 5G innovation.

"Houston has always been on the frontline," Mayor Sylvester Turner said during a 5G roundtable discussion in 2019. "It is who we are. It is in our DNA. We are a leading city. We didn't wait for somebody else to go to the moon. Or to be the energy capital of the world. Or the largest medical center in the world. But you don't stay at the front if you don't continue to lead."

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