Should I Invest In a Target Date Retirement Fund?

Are Target Date Mutual Funds the Holy Grail for Investors?

Guest contributor; Lawrence J. Russell

Learn all about a TDF and the answer to, “Should I invest in a target date fund?” question.

Target date retirement funds (TDFs) are usually “fund-of-funds” investments, which combine stock, bond, cash, and sometimes other investment asset classes. The target date fund buys stock and bond mutual funds or exchange traded funds in specific proportions, depending upon the final “year”.

target date mutual funds retirement

Thus, target date funds add a layer of management expenses on top of the expenses of these underlying funds. The primary added value of target date funds relates to set-it-and-forget-it nature.

Over the years, TDFs follow a planned and evolving asset allocation strategy that is designed to prepare for retirement. The target date fund performs annual or more frequent rebalancing and also provides “one-stop shopping” for a specified collection of diversified asset class funds.

Is a Target Date Fund Appropriate For You?

Would target date funds add value to your investment portfolio? The decision depends upon your answers to a series of questions, which are discussed below.

To find out whether a target date fund is good for you, review the following questions. Also, review the potential “problem” with this type of investment.

They appear to be a simple, complete, and ready-made retirement investment solution that does not require a great deal of thought. The date and the word retirement in the fund names say it all, and this seems to absolve an investor of really understanding how they should be investing for retirement.

Too many naive investors pick the TDF that is closest to their planned retirement date. Next they invest in that fund, close their eyes, and hope for the best. They think to themselves that “professionals” know more than I do about this, so they can handle everything for me.

There’s more to the target date fund than meets the eye.

Ask yourself hese questions before investing:

1. Will your need for higher investment returns and your tolerance for investment risk both decline as you age and into retirement?

The design of TDFs assumes that earlier in a persons working career they are far more willing and able to take on higher investment risk to achieve potentially higher investment returns. As the investor ages, approaches retirement, and moves into retirement, target date funds will reduce both investment risk exposure and the expected returns of the underlying assets.

While there are nuances to this evolving investment strategy, the big idea is that younger workers farther from retirement will hold a higher proportion of more risky stock or equity assets in their target date fund. As they age, the percentage of stocks will decline, while the percentage allocations to fixed income bonds and cash will increase.

While there is a widespread presumption among many individual investors that investment risk tolerance automatically declines with age, this is not necessarily true. Many investors grow more conservative with age and may not wish to take significant investment risks, as they near and live through retirement. However, there is research that suggests one’s risk tolerance remains constant throughout their lives and doesn’t change much. If this is the case, then investors wouldn’t like the greater risk in the earlier years with a diminished risk later.

The asset allocation of funds might not be in line with the investors risk tolerance.

Conservative Investors

For example, more conservative investors might be uncomfortable with the higher investment risk profile of TDFs that are many years away from the retirement year. Risk intolerant investors may be more comfortable with a lower risk investment strategy that includes a greater allocation to fixed income mutual funds during the many decades before retirement.

Aggressive Investors

In contrast, those investors who are much more tolerant of risk may be very satisfied with an asset allocation more heavily skewed toward stocks in the early years. But, they might also be dissatisfied with the target date fund’s reduced equity exposure as the retirement date approaches and the reduced potential for higher returns in the future.

Many aging and older workers are highly tolerant of investment risk. These experienced investors understand that they need to be invested all the time to earn securities and stock market risk premiums in the various investment markets.

Barbara’s comment; In fact, my investment portfolio is a bit riskier than might be recommended for an investor my age.

2. Is the “One size fits all” risk-return profile for you?

Don’t invest in target date funds if you want access to value stocks, mid-cap funds, actively managed mutual funds, commodities, equal weight index funds, or a niche type of investment.

Investors should understand that there is no one-size-fits-all lifetime investment risk and return model. If you attempt to understand your current tolerance for risk and return expectations, and they happen to fit the current profile of the target date fund that you are evaluating, then you might be a good candidate for investing in that fund.

TDFs are designed for the average investor, not someone who wants a widely diversified portfolio. You might prefer your retirement funds to include an allocation to real estate, bio technology or other market sectors.

So, if your risk tolerance doesn’t jive with that asset allocation of the fund, you might look elsewhere. If you want greater dirsification, you could consider choosing other investments, on your own.

Ask yourself if the convenience of the target date fund justifies the additional expense ratio, levied on top of the underlysing funds’ management expense ratios.

Keep in mind that target date retirement fund asset allocation models change slowly over time. As an alternative, you may be able to purchase the underlying funds directly and make your own customized TDF at a lower cost.

3. Do you understand the glide path and a target date retirement fund that is “to” versus “through” retirement?

Target date retirement investment funds assume that an investor understands something about asset allocation and rebalancing, and wishes for the equities or stock proportion to decline with age. However, there is significant evidence that many investors do not think clearly about these matters. It’s helpful to look more closely to understand the TDF’s individual investments and their proportions. The design of target date retirement funds can differ dramatically from one investment fund vendor to another.

Two Varieties of Target Date Retirement Funds

In general, there are two types of target date funds:

A) “to retirement”

B) “through retirement”

This “to” and “through” difference can lead to significant variability in target date fund outcomes and to great investor confusion. For some background, see this SEC Investor Bulletin on TDFs.

“To” Target Date Funds

“To” target date funds attempt to achieve relatively stable value at the point of retirement. A “to” retirement target date fund uses an asset allocation model during working years that results in relatively smaller equities holdings and relatively larger cash and bond holdings at the specified retirement year.

Since the downward equities asset allocation glide path is relatively steep, “to” target date funds must also implicitly presume relatively high savings rates during one’s working years. Nearing retirement with a relatively stable accumulation of investment funds, a “to” retirement target date fund owner could decide to live off the accumulated assets during retirement taking moderate withdrawals. Alternatively, she could decide to annuitize some or all of these accumulated assets in exchange for a steam of fixed payments throughout retirement.

“Through” Target Date Funds

With a “through” retirement target date fund, the stock proportion of the asset allocation model declines with age but at a more gentle downward slope that passes through the planned retirement age. “Through” target date retirement funds recognize that the investor is expected to live perhaps two or even three decades beyond their planned retirement date. As such, their expected asset accumulation value at retirement can be less stable or assured.

“Through” TDFs hold higher proportions of stock in and during retirement to help the investor sustain the purchasing power of their portfolio over a retirement of uncertain duration.

“To” Versus “Through ” Target Date Funds

The “to” versus “through” target date funds situation is not a minor nor trivial issue. For example, this was a topic of huge concern in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash. When the credit crunch and Great Recession hit and the stock market crashed, some of those who held “through” target date funds were surprised by the drop in their asset values. In particular, many older workers who were nearing their planned retirement age were quite surprised that the value of their target date funds dropped significantly.

This became the subject of some congressional testimony by shocked and naive investors who did not understand what they had purchased. Some investors got so upset that you can go to the SEC website, search for “target date funds” and read for hours what they wrote. If these investors had really understood the glide path of their “through” target date retirement fund, they should have understood that significant declines in value were possible near retirement due to higher equities exposure.

Of course, if these uninformed investors had held a “to” target date fund, they would have experienced much less shock at the market crash. Yet these same ill-informed “to” retirement fund investors may have accidentally avoided one shock in exchange for another.

Equities historically offer growth potential and have protected investors from loss of purchasing power far better than cash or bond assets. It is quite possible that many naive investors in “to” retirement” glide path target date funds will experience a slow motion surprise in the future.

If inflation increases and the investor holds few equity assets, their purchasing power could erode over the course of their retirement. Few people accumulate a large enough portfolio before retirement to enable them to live 30 or 40 years on cash and bonds alone.

Target Date Fund Alternatives

If you’re a competent investor, then save yourself some money and invest in a diversified portfolio of low cost index funds, and rebalance periodically. Or, you could choose to invest in a free robo-advisor, which would manage your investment mix, without the added layer of fees.

Consider a TDF plus other assets. For example, if the best alternative in your 401k is the TDF, then make that choice. But also consider opening an IRA or brokerage account to supplement your retirement savings with other types of investments.

Paul Merriman of the Merriman Foundation likes the idea of supplementing a TDF with a small cap value fund, to boost long term returns. That’s because small cap value investments have performed well over long periods of time, in the past.

Should I Invest in a Target Date Fund? Wrap up

Whether you invest in a target date fund or not, isn’t an either or decision. This type of set it and forget it choice can also be used to save for other long term goals.

You might also consider investing in a TDF for intermediate or longer term goals like a big trip or downpayment on a vacation home, regardless of when you plan to retire. Just choose the “date” to coincide with the year you’ll need access to the money.

Finally, if you decide to invest in a TDF, compare the investment options from various fund families to find one with low fees and an asset allocation or glide path that fits with your risk tolerance.

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Lawrence J. Russell is President and Managing Director of Lawrence Russell and Company, a personal financial planning services provider and registered investment adviser in Pasadena, California.


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