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Determinants of Early-Access to Retirement Savings: Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic


Hazel Bateman, Isabella Dobrescu, Junhao Liu, Ben R. Newell & Susan Thorp

Abstract: The Australian COVID-19 Early Release Scheme (ERS) allowed people in financial hardship immediate access to up to $A20,000 of their ‘preserved’ retirement savings between April and December 2020. Using data from a large Australian pension fund, we examine what drives people’s decisions to take advantage of the ERS. We find that while the majority of survey respondents withdrew money for immediate consumption needs, a substantial proportion of them were concerned about future needs. Most withdrawers thought about the decision for less than a week and many appeared to use the $A10,000 per round limit as an anchor in choosing their withdrawal amount. Conditional on eligibility, the probability of withdrawal was significantly higher where respondents (i) were more concerned about future needs, (ii) did not think about the long-term impact, and (iii) under-estimated or did not estimate the fall in their retirement savings. Our results suggest that many people who withdrew under the scheme did not fully understand the consequences of their choice. These findings raise the question of whether the framing of ‘mandatory’ retirement savings as a mental account to finance retirement has been irrevocably damaged.

Keywords: pension early access, retirement savings, mental accounts, COVID-19

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