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 Congressional testimony, fellowships, lectures, books and other publications he has bylined, even unpublished papers—it’s all there.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.