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The Trouble With Target Date Funds

This article was written by in Investing. 9 comments.


Over the next couple of weeks, six finalists will be auditioning for the opening of “staff writer” at Consumerism Commentary. Each will be providing two guest articles to share with readers. After the six writers have shared their guest articles, readers will have an opportunity to provide feedback before we select the staff writer.

This article is presented by J.J., a financial adviser and published financial author.

Target date funds are under scrutiny in Washington as lawmakers figure out if they work the way they’re supposed to.

Also known as lifecycle funds, these funds become less risky as time goes on. They’re popular in 401(k) plans and other retirement plans because they make diversification easy. You select one target date fund from your plan’s menu, and that fund spreads your money among numerous underlying funds.

Most people are told to select the fund that has a number closest to their retirement year. Plan to retire soon? You might choose the “2010 Target Date Fund.” If you’re 26 years old, you might select the “2050 Target Date Fund.”

These funds are also common in 529 college savings programs where they may be called “age based” funds. The concepts are the same, so we’ll talk in terms of retirement for now.

For some, especially those who will not put time and energy into studying their investments, target date funds are a fine choice. They offer diversification and continuous re-balancing. They may have exposure to things (alternative strategies, commodities, or sector funds) you can’t find on your plan’s menu or that you don’t have enough money to buy into.

However, they’re far from perfect. Let’s cover a few of the major problems and what you can do about them.

What’s the right mix?

There are dramatic differences in how they’re constructed. For example, consider two funds with a target year of 2010. This would be a fund designed for an older investor — planning to start spending the money within a year — who presumably does not want to take much risk.

Fund Company A’s 2010 fund might have 26% in stocks, but Fund Company B’s 2010 fund might have 72% in stocks. Indeed, that’s exactly what happens. Morningstar published a study showing equity exposure in 2010 funds, and results are all over the board. Do most 65-year-olds want 72% of their money in the stock markets?

Critics suggest fixing this problem by standardizing equity exposure for each target year, or at least requiring more understandable charts showing the fund’s risk level. Some investors may be comfortable with high risk portfolios, but they should at least know what they’re getting into.

Who’s running the money?

Target date funds are made up of 10 to 30 underlying funds. Are those funds any good?

Critics argue that some fund companies put poor funds into their target date funds to feed money into those poor funds. If that’s the case, the Large Cap Value portion of your target date fund may be run by an under-performing manager or team. Of course, this is less of a risk if the fund company only uses index (or passive) funds.

The best target date funds are probably multi-fund-family funds. For example, T. Rowe Price’s target date funds are composed entirely of T. Rowe Price mutual funds. John Hancock uses different money managers to subadvise pieces of their target date funds. This lets them use best-of-breed managers for some portions of the portfolio and index funds for other portions.

Note that I have nothing against (nor do I endorse) either of the above companies; this is just food for thought.

What about fees?

It’s always hard to tell how much you’re paying with a mutual fund. Target date funds are especially tricky because they’re made up of many underlying funds. Most companies disclose “overlay” fees, the fee for creating the mix of investments and managing it over time, in a prospectus, but few investors look under the hood.

Multi-fund-family funds may have arrangements that create potential conflicts of interest. Why is one manager used instead of another? Hopefully it’s because of superior management, but you know it’s not always that simple.

Finally, some say that target date funds have excessive equity exposure because equity funds generate more revenue. That may help explain why a 2010 fund has 72% in stocks.

What can you do?

Target date funds are designed to make life easy, so requiring you to do homework kind of defeats the purpose. However, they’re out there and they may be your only option (or the best option available to you). It pays to know how they work and how you can improve your chances:

  • Ask for help. Your 401(k) provider, financial advisor, or DIY investment company should be able to help you figure out what you’re investing in.
  • Look under the hood. Understand how much is in stocks, bonds, foreign assets, and other assets. Are you comfortable with that mix?
  • Make changes. If you don’t like what you see, use something else. If you’re limited to your employer’s retirement plan menu, consider using other investments. Talk to the HR department about your concerns.
  • Bend the rules. Target date funds are designed for you to put 100% of your money into a fund with a target date near your retirement date. You can always use a different year to increase or reduce risk, or you can put 80% into the target date fund and 20% into another fund.
  • Lean on regulators. Let them know what’s important to you or hope for the best.

Tell us about your experience with target date funds. Why do you use them or avoid them?

This is a guest article by J.J., one of six finalists interested in being Consumerism Commentary’s staff writer.

Photo credit: eyeliam

Updated January 16, 2010 and originally published November 10, 2009. If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to the RSS feed or receive daily emails. Follow @ConsumerismComm on Twitter and visit our Facebook page for more updates.

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About the author

J.J. is a consultant for employer retirement plans and works with credit unions as a financial adviser. He works with individuals and businesses every day as they make important decisions about their money. View all articles by .

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Steve

Changing the year usually only helps if you’re changing to or from a fund with a target in the next, say, 10 years. For instance a 2045 fund and a 2050 fund are identically invested this year. It’s only once the closer targeted fund enters its “glide path” that there is any difference.

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avatar Steve

Changing the year usually only helps if you’re changing to or from a fund with a target in the next, say, 10 years. For instance a 2045 fund and a 2050 fund are identically invested this year. It’s only once the closer targeted fund enters its “glide path” that there is any difference.

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avatar Steve

Changing the year usually only helps if you're changing to or from a fund with a target in the next, say, 10 years. For instance a 2045 fund and a 2050 fund are identically invested this year. It's only once the closer targeted fund enters its “glide path” that there is any difference.

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avatar J.J.

Good point Steve. The higher numbers just mean you’ll wait longer to begin the glide path.

If you can’t get what you want by changing years, another option is to add different funds to your portfolio.

For some investors the 2050 fund isn’t risky enough (too much in fixed-income let’s say), but they like the idea of using a target date fund for diversification. They might keep 70% in the target date fund and put the other 30% into riskier options like stock funds. This adds a little spice to the overall mix.

On the other hand, a conservative investor might not be comfortable with a high level of stocks in the 2010 fund. That person can leave some in the target date fund (again, assuming the fund is worth it for diversification and ease-of-use), and put the rest in safer investments like fixed-income or money markets.

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avatar J.J.

Good point Steve. The higher numbers just mean you’ll wait longer to begin the glide path.

If you can’t get what you want by changing years, another option is to add different funds to your portfolio.

For some investors the 2050 fund isn’t risky enough (too much in fixed-income let’s say), but they like the idea of using a target date fund for diversification. They might keep 70% in the target date fund and put the other 30% into riskier options like stock funds. This adds a little spice to the overall mix.

On the other hand, a conservative investor might not be comfortable with a high level of stocks in the 2010 fund. That person can leave some in the target date fund (again, assuming the fund is worth it for diversification and ease-of-use), and put the rest in safer investments like fixed-income or money markets.

Reply to this comment

avatar J.J.

Good point Steve. The higher numbers just mean you’ll wait longer to begin the glide path.

If you can’t get what you want by changing years, another option is to add different funds to your portfolio.

For some investors the 2050 fund isn’t risky enough (too much in fixed-income let’s say), but they like the idea of using a target date fund for diversification. They might keep 70% in the target date fund and put the other 30% into riskier options like stock funds. This adds a little spice to the overall mix.

On the other hand, a conservative investor might not be comfortable with a high level of stocks in the 2010 fund. That person can leave some in the target date fund (again, assuming the fund is worth it for diversification and ease-of-use), and put the rest in safer investments like fixed-income or money markets.

Reply to this comment

avatar VCMcGuire

This is a great overview. I use target date funds in a couple of places–a 529 college savings account, and my workplace retirement plan. This is pure laziness on my part. It means I have to manage investments in fewer accounts. I have access to a wider variety of funds in my ROTH IRA, so I use the ROTH investments to spice up my overall investment mix. Every six months I use Morningstar’s X-ray tool to analyze all my investments at once. I notice the target date funds are a little bit too weighted toward domestic stocks and large caps, so I tend to buy foreign stocks and small caps with the money in my ROTH in order to get the balance I want.

Eventually I’d like to get rid of the target date funds so I’ll have a little more control, but right now it’s working for me because it makes it easier to manage multiple accounts.

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avatar J.J.

Thanks VCMcGuire. As you mentioned these funds can be handy for limiting the amount of time you spend on investing. If you pay a little attention and tweak your investment mix the way you want it, you can let target date funds do most of the hard work and still have a decent portfolio.

FYI I enjoyed your article on lifestyle creep.

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avatar Anonymous

Another thing to watch out for is “overdiversification” which actually results in under-diversification. Meaning, many people will choose a target date fund as just one of the many funds they invest in, not realizing that many of the fund’s holdings overlap with their other funds. This can result in actually being concentrated in a few popular stocks or bond asset classes. Using a tool like Morningstar or working with a financial advisor, you can have them run a review of your holdings to check the actual diversification of your holdings.

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