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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

 
 

SpaceCom is taking place online this year for free. Here's what you need to sign up for. Photo courtesy of SpaceCom

Today marks the first day in SpaceCom's two-week online conference featuring space entrepreneurs, NASA executives, government experts, and more.

Usually a must-attend event hosted at George R. Brown Convention Center in downtown Houston, SpaceCom is free and virtual this year. Register to attend and check out this curated list of 10 can't-miss discussions.

Click here for the full schedule.

Tuesday, October 20 — General Session: Whole of Government

Greg Autry, director at SoCal Commercial Spaceflight Initiative, will moderate a discussion with Kevin O'Connell, director at the Office of Space Commerce Department of Commerce, and Scott Pace, executive secretary at the National Space Council. The panel will discuss how they will work together on policies and actions they need to take to enable the trillion-dollar space economy.

This virtual panel takes place online on Tuesday, October 20, from 11 to 11:45 am. Learn more.

Tuesday, October 20 — Carbon Footprint and Emissions Monitoring

Satellite data can give governments and industry the ability to monitor and reduce the carbon footprint. In this panel, experts will discuss the companies that operate and use satellite data to monitor, manage and profit from satellites that monitor the planet's carbon footprint.

  • Lou Zacharilla, director of Innovation Space & Satellite Professionals International (moderator)
  • Sebastien Biraud, staff scientist and Climate Sciences Department Head at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
  • Steve Hamburg, chief scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund
  • Yotam Ariel, CEO of Bluefield Technologies
This virtual panel takes place online on Tuesday, October 20, from 1 to 1:45 pm. Learn more.

Thursday, October 22 — Keynote: Industry Applications

This general session features how Amazon Web Services helps terrestrial industries take advantage of space enabled services already in place at competitive pricing. Speaker Clint Crosier from Amazon Web Services and moderator Douglas Terrier, chief technology officer at NASA.

This virtual panel takes place online on Thursday, October 22, from 11 to 11:45 am. Learn more.

Monday, October 26 — Keynote: International Space Station

The new head of NASA's International Space Station program, Joel Montalbano, who is based in Houston's Johnson Space Center, provides a status of and exciting new industry applications for the ISS as well as insight into the future of ISS.

This virtual panel takes place online on Monday, October 26, from 11 to 11:45 am. Learn more.

Monday, October 26 — NASA Session: Transferring NASA Technology

NASA's treasure trove of technology is available to American industry and entrepreneurs to apply in profitable ways. In this session, NASA technology transfer leaders — Daniel Lockney, Kimberly Minafra, and Krista Jensen — will discuss the many ways the private sector can tap into the accumulated knowledge NASA has to share.

This virtual panel takes place online on Monday, October 26, from 12 to 12:45 pm. Learn more.

Tuesday, October 27 — Space Tourism: The Excitement and Expectations

A panel of industry experts will discuss the space tourism industry, taking a deep dive into what the future holds, constraints for the industry's ability to address the market for many years to come and how some of these projects will be executed from a business, technology and execution perspective.

  • Amir Blachman, chief business officer of Houston-based Axiom Space
  • Jane Poynter, founder and co-CEO of Space Perspective
  • Sudhir Pai, CEO of Autonomous Energy Ventures
  • Richard Garriott, private astronaut (moderator)

This virtual panel takes place online on Tuesday, October 27, from 12 to 12:45 pm. Learn more.

Tuesday, October 27 — Spaceports as the Innovation Hub for Regions

Spaceports around the world can, and in many cases are, serving as regional innovation centers for high tech activities and creating positive economic development opportunities. Speakers Cherie Matthew, project manager at Corgan, and Pam Underwood, director at the FAA Office of Spaceports, review what the future looks like for spaceports and what funding will be necessary with moderator George Nield, president of Commercial Space Technologies LLC.

This virtual panel takes place online on Tuesday, October 27, from 1 to 1:45 pm. Learn more.

Wednesday, October 28 — NASA Session: Industries of the Future

NASA technology is creating the underpinning for new industries of the future. NASA's work has already changed the world with advances in telecom and microprocessors. More is yet to come. This panel led by Douglas Terrier, NASA chief technologist will explore the industries on the horizon that will stem from NASA innovation.

This virtual panel takes place online on Wednesday, October 28, from 12 to 12:45 pm. Learn more.

Thursday, October 29 — Keynote: Women of Space

NASA's head of human exploration, Kathy Lueders, based in Houston's Johnson Space Center, discusses the crucial role that women have, are, and will continue to provide in getting America back to the Moon, as well as in creating the trillion-dollar commercial space economy with moderator Vanessa Wyche, deputy director at JSC.

This virtual panel takes place online on Thursday, October 29, from 11 to 11:45 am. Learn more.

Thursday, October 29 — Zoom to the Moon

An international panel discussion with Orion Program Managers about progress toward launching NASA's first human-rated spacecraft to travel around the Moon since 1972.

  • Catherine Koerner, NASA Orion Program Manager NASA at JSC
  • Didier Radola, head of ORION ESM Programme Airbus
  • Nico Dettman, Lunar Exploration Group Leader for Lunar Exploration Development Projects European Space Agency
  • Tony Antonelli, Artemis II mission director Lockheed Martin

This virtual panel takes place online on Thursday, October 29, from 1 to 1:45 pm. Learn more.

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