The Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) is setting up a new division to oversee new financial products, and this group is starting with target date funds. These are mutual funds usually taking the form of baskets of other mutual funds, designed to target a certain year of retirement. As the year approaches, the fund automatically changes asset allocation, usually between stocks and bonds, to become less risky.
I’ve pointed out some of my concerns with target date funds here before. Mainly, they could be too conservative and it’s easy to hide fees. Mary Schapiro, the head of the SEC, pointed to the exchanges from stocks to bonds. The cost of the sales and purchases is buried in the daily price of the target date fund, and there is currently no good way for customers to understand how much they are being charged for the re-balancing of the portfolio they could do on their own.
Schapiro also noted that there is no standard across companies. A target date fund designed for those who plan to retire in 2050 with one fund manager may have a different allocation between stocks and bonds than a 2050 target date fund with another fund manager.
Here is a comparison of the asset allocations for the funds designed for those retiring in 2050 from Vanguard, Fidelity, and T. Rowe Price.
|Vanguard||Fidelity||T. Rowe Price|
The variation seems small but could have an significant effect on returns by retirement in 2050. If target retirement funds were standardized across companies, customers could accurately and easily compare returns between fund managers, understand the level of risk, and have the opportunity to make better investment decisions.
I am not convinced there is a need for this. Any fund’s composition is described in detail in the prospectus and in on a multitude of financial data websites like Yahoo Finance and Google Finance. What isn’t clear are the true fees. We do know that Vanguard’s fee for their 2050 fund is 0.19%, Fidelity’s is 0.82%, and T. Rowe Price’s is 0.79%, but that only tells part of the story. Whenever there is turnover — stocks are sold and other stocks, bonds, or other investments are purchases — fees are generated but wrapped tightly into the daily price of the fund so it is barely noticeable.
Asset re-allocation is the purpose of target date funds. Even if the underlying funds, those in the basket, are low-turnover index funds, the managers may be rearranging the index funds in the basket often. For those disciplined to handle the responsibility of occasional re-balancing themselves, and it’s not that difficult, I suggest avoiding target date funds.
Target date funds have lots of fans because it’s a form of automation, and automation in finances is usually a good thing. There is a danger of automation leading to complacency and a false sense of security. If you choose target date funds, familiarize yourself with the details and evaluate whether the pre-packaged re-allocation system is worth the thousands of dollars or more you could be losing in hidden fees and with a risk profile that doesn’t match your income needs and tolerance.
Would you like to see target date funds standardizes so a “2050 Fund” from one company matches a “2050 Fund” from another company? or should companies be left to determine what strategy is best for their customers?
Updated January 16, 2010 and originally published November 4, 2009.