Selecting the Discount Rate (2017)

Recently Economica undertook a detailed re-evaluation of our recommendations concerning the discount rate. We argue that plaintiffs have available two alternative methods of investing their awards for future losses. In the first, which we call the annuity approach, plaintiffs use their awards to purchase life annuities or structured settlements. In the second, which we call the active management approach, plaintiffs invest their awards in portfolios of secure financial products, such as government bonds and “blue chip” stocks.
We find that the real rate of return is higher using the active management approach than the annuity approach – approximately 2.5 percent versus zero percent. At the same time, however, the risk that plaintiffs’ investments will be depleted before they die is much greater if plaintiffs manage their investments than if they purchase annuities. Accordingly, it may be that risk averse plaintiffs would prefer to purchase annuities than to manage their own portfolios even if they earn a lower rate of return.
We conclude that, as economists cannot know how risk averse individual plaintiffs are, our role should be to calculate two values for each future loss – one using zero percent and one using 2.5 percent. It will then be for the court to decide which discount rate is relevant to the particular plaintiff facing it.