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Harvard researcher tries to explain the "Bird in the Hand" Social Security claiming strategy that defies arithmetic and leaves $100,000 on the table.

Social Security Claiming and the Annuity Puzzle


Life cycle theory predicts that individuals facing uncertain mortality will annuitize all or most of their retirement wealth. Researchers seeking to explain why retirees rarely purchase annuities have focused on imperfections in commercial annuities – including actuarially unfair pricing, lack of bequest protection, and illiquidity in the case of risky events like medical shocks. I study the annuity choice implicit in the timing of Social Security claiming and show that none of these can explain why most retirees claim benefits as early as possible, effectively choosing the minimum annuity. Most early claimers in the Health and Retirement Study had sufficient liquidity to delay Social Security longer than they actually did and could have increased lifetime consumption by delaying. Because the marginal annuity obtained through delay is better than actuarially fair, standard bequest motives cannot explain the puzzle. Nor can the risk of out-of-pocket nursing home costs, since these are concentrated at older ages past the break-even point for delayed claiming. Social Security claiming patterns, therefore, add to the evidence that behavioral explanations may be needed to explain the annuity puzzle.


Translation: "People be crazy".

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