“The human mind is charming in its unreasonableness, its inveterate prejudices, and its waywardness and unpredictability.”
“Behavioral” finance is the hot new field in the rapidly growing “imperial” science of economics. Consider the titles of recent books on the subject: Irrational Exuberance by Robert Shiller of Yale University, who correctly warned investors that the bull market on Wall Street in 2000 was not sustainable, and Why Smart People Make Big Money Mistakes by Gary Belsky and Thomas Gilovich.
Essentially, these writers take issue with a fundamental principle of economics—the concept of “rational” predictable behavior. They argue that investors, consumers, and business people don’t always act according to the “rational economic man” standard, but instead suffer from overconfidence, overreaction, fear, greed, herding instincts, and other “animal spirits,” to use John Maynard Keynes’s term.2
Their basic thesis is that people make mistakes all the time. Too many individuals overspend and get into trouble with credit; they don’t save enough for retirement; they buy stocks at the top and sell at the bottom; they fail to prepare a will. Economic failure, stupidity, and incompetence are common to human nature. As Ludwig von Mises notes, “To make mistakes in pursuing one’s ends is a widespread human weakness.”3
Fortunately, the market has a built-in mechanism to minimize mistakes and entrepreneurial error. The market penalizes mistakes and rewards correct behavior (witness how well business responded to the Y2K threat in the late 1990s). As Israel Kirzner states, “Pure profit opportunities exist whenever error occurs.”4
But the new behavioral economists go beyond the standard market approach. They argue that new institutional measures can be introduced to minimize error and misjudgments, without involving the government.
At the American Economic Association meetings in Atlanta in January 2002, Richard Thaler of the University of Chicago presented a paper on his “SMART” savings plan, which is being tested by five corporations in the Chicago area. Thaler, author of The Winner’s Curse and a pioneer in behavioral economics, has developed a new institutional method to increase workers’ savings rates. Thaler noted that the average workers’ savings rates are painfully low. I blame the low rate on high withholding taxes, but Thaler suggested that part of the problem is the way retirement programs are administered. He convinced these corporations to adopt his plan to have their employees enroll in an “automatic” investment 401(k) plan. Most corporations treat 401(k) plans as a voluntary program and, as a result, only half choose to sign up. In Thaler’s plan, employees are automatically invested in 401(k) plans unless they choose to opt out.
Result? Instead of 49 percent signing up (as they do in a typical corporate investment plan), 86 percent participate.
In addition, Thaler has participating employees automatically invest most of any pay increase in higher contributions to their 401(k) plans, so they never see their paychecks decline, even though their 401(k) plans are increasing. Consequently, employees under this SMART plan have seen their average savings rate increase from 3 to 11 percent.
Robert Shiller was a discussant at the session and rightly called Thaler’s plan “brilliant.” I agree. Having authored several investment books advocating “automatic investing” and dollar-cost-averaging plans,5 I applaud Professor Thaler for taking the concept of automatic investing to a new level. If companies everywhere adopt his plan, it could indeed revolutionize the world and lead not only to a much more secure retirement for workers but to a higher saving and investment rate. The result could be a higher economic growth and standard of living throughout the world.
Most important, Thaler’s plan is a private-sector initiative and does not require government intervention. In short, through innovative management techniques and education, individuals can solve their own financial and business problems without the help of the state.
- Lin Yutang, The Importance of Living (New York: John Day Company, 1937), p. 57.
- References to “animal spirits” and “waves of irrational psychology” can be found in John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (New York: Macmillan, 1973 ), pp. 161–62.
- Ludwig von Mises, Theory and History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957), p. 268. However, Mises refuses to call bad decisions “irrational.” He states, “Error, inefficiency, and failure must not be confused with irrationality. He who shoots wants, as a rule, to hit the mark. If he misses it, he is not ‘irrational’ he is a poor marksman.”
- Israel M. Kirzner, “Economics and Error” in Perception, Opportunity, and Profit (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), p. 135.
- 5. Mark and Jo Ann Skousen, High Finance on a Low Budget (Chicago: Dearborn, 1993) and Mark Skousen’s 30-Day Plan for Financial Independence (Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 1995).