From the October 2012 issue of Research Magazine • Subscribe!

September 25, 2012

Beyond the Ivory Tower

Economist James Poterba delves deeply into the practicalities of retirement, taxation and more.

Jim Poterba’s curriculum vitae spans 19 pages. Congressional testimony, fellowships, lectures, books and other publications he has bylined, even unpublished papers—it’s all there.

Now, the 54-year-old economics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology can add another line to his lengthy list of credits: the 2012 Achievement in Applied Retirement Research Award, presented this month at the Retirement Income Industry Association’s fall conference. The award is sponsored by Research magazine and AdvisorOne.com, as well as RIIA.

“Jim’s the academic economist equivalent of a gold medal Olympic athlete,” notes Moshe Milevsky, who got the award in 2008. “He fully deserves this year’s Applied Retirement Research award, and perhaps next year’s as well.”

For the past three decades, the MIT economist has focused his research on how taxation affects the economic decisions of households and firms. Poterba’s recent work has explored the effect of taxation on the financial behavior of households, particularly their saving and portfolio decisions. And he has long been interested in the analysis of tax-deferred retirement saving programs such as 401(k) plans and in the role of annuities in financing retirement consumption.

The big takeaway for financial advisors: one size does not fit all.

As Poterba puts it, “Almost every time I look at data on household balance sheets and household circumstances, particularly at older ages, I’m struck by how much heterogeneity there is in the population.”

At one end of the spectrum are people in their 70s, 80s and 90s who have very little in the way of assets beyond a Social Security claim, perhaps an employer-provided pension and, in many cases, an owner-occupied house. At the other end: high levels of wealth saved at rates that seem remarkable relative to income.

“It’s important in thinking about policy design and some of the private sector financial questions the advisor community is working on. One-size-fits-all advice is very unlikely to do the job,” observes Poterba, who did his undergraduate work at Harvard and went on to study at Oxford University, where he got a master’s and doctorate in economics. “We really do need to recognize the different circumstances of households—the different desires, the different needs, the different risks. This is the challenge of advising the elderly.”

The passion that underlies Poterba’s academic research was first sparked when he was a freshman at a Pennsylvania high school. Two things happened to Poterba, the son of an accountant and an elementary school teacher. He took an economics class and joined the debate team. The national debating topic that year: whether the federal government should finance elementary and secondary education in the U.S.

“There was a lot about taxes, revenues, state versus federal, intergovernmental transfers. It’s quite close to my subject of research today,” says Poterba, who serves as president of the National Bureau of Economic Research. “We worked on the topic that whole year, taking both affirmative and negative positions so I learned a lot about associated issues like the regressivity of value-added tax and property tax. It certainly influenced my thinking.”

By the time he graduated, Poterba’s debate team was ranked one of the top in the country. The topic in his senior year involved allocation of scarce world resources. “You could not ask for a topic closer to the fundamentals of economics,” says Poterba. “I guess the die was cast my freshman year.”

That sense of right-place, right-time followed Poterba as he came up. At Harvard, he worked as an undergraduate research assistant for both Lawrence Summers and Martin Feldstein, notable economists interested in the tax system and its effect on households and corporations. When he began teaching at MIT in 1983, it was the early days of the 401(k) and the “IRA experience.”

“Questions associated with tax rules on retirement savings were front and center,” says Poterba. Then, in the early 1990s, the National Institute on Aging began sponsoring a biennial survey of households late in life, tracking people’s health and economic circumstances. The survey results completely changed the way retirement research was done.

“This was transformational. The last two decades represent a revolution in the amount of high-quality information that’s available about households in retirement,” says Poterba, who is married to MIT economist Nancy Rose. “It’s a data-rich environment. There’s lots of numerical information to slice and dice. It’s something I really enjoy—trying to think through how we tease information out of different data sets.”

Milevsky, an associate professor of finance at York University and executive director of the non-profit IFID Centre in Toronto, calls Poterba one of the world’s leading scholars in the field of public economics.

“He is a known guru on all aspects of taxation policy and how it impacts the economy. He is not only an academic theoretician, he has actually served on a number of presidential-level committees to investigate these things in the real world,” says Milevsky. “If you want somebody to help you think through the tax implications of almost anything in economics, he is your man.”

Poterba, meantime, continues to diligently follow where the research takes him.

“The work I’ve been associated with has shown up in many contexts—in public policy discussions and in private,” he says. “But there’s no Jim’s plan or Jim’s rule. It’s simply following the thread.”  

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