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Investment Tips & Tools: Target Date Approach to Asset Allocation

The Target Date Approach to Asset Allocation

When it comes to participating in a 403(b) and/or 457(b) there are essentially two ways to go: do it yourself or use an advisor. The sheer complexity of investing can send even the savviest saver running for advice. The mutual fund industry believes it has the cure for the aspiring do-it-yourselfer looking for simple, low-cost option for saving for retirement.

Known by a variety of names — age-based, life-cycle, target-date retirement — former Marine and T. Rowe Price portfolio manager Jerome A. Clark, CFA, may have the best phrase to describe the increasingly popular breed of mutual fund which greatly simplifies saving for retirement. He calls it "fire and forget." It's a military expression that describes a weapon that automatically does what it is supposed to do allowing a soldier to return to safety. This is exactly how target-date retirement funds work. Investors simply choose an estimated retirement date in the future — say 2035 — and select the target-date retirement fund that corresponds most closely to this date. Fund operators take it from there as they guide the fund like a missile to its ultimate destination: retirement.

Asset Allocation Made Simple

Aimed squarely at retirement savers, these funds make the most critical and difficult part of retirement saving — asset allocation — simple. Studies indicate that more than 90 percent of variability of returns in a portfolio is the result of asset allocation — the process of distributing investments across various asset classes (stocks, bonds, cash) in an attempt to moderate the inevitable ups and downs of investing. Studies also indicate that investors are loath to alter initial allocation, meaning that most investors retire with the exact same allocation as the day they began. To prevent such a scenario which courts disaster, target-date funds automatically adjust asset allocation over time. The farther an investor is from retirement, the more weighted the fund is toward equities (stocks). The fund automatically becomes more conservative as the target retirement date approaches. For example, in 2016 the T. Rowe Price Retirement 2035 (TRRCX) fund was weighted 82% stocks and 18% fixed income investments, while the T. Rowe Price Retirement 2025 fund (TRRGX) was weighted 70% stocks and 30% fixed income investments.

Taking the Emotion Out of Investing

Fund manager Ren Cheng has overseen Fidelity's target-date Freedom Funds since 1996, and says the beauty of the target-date approach is that it takes the most volatile aspect of investing — emotion — out of the equation. "The average investment decision is based on emotion, not reality," Cheng said. To underscore the negative impact of emotion he points to the annual Dalbar Quantitative Analysis of Investor Behavior (QAIB) report which consistently shows that the average investor performs poorly. When the market declines, the average investor often sells. All too often the average investor buys high and sells low. 

Early Pioneers

Wells Fargo Bank and Fidelity were early pioneers of the target-date approach. In fact, Chen has been involved since 1994 when Fidelity first began working on the concept. Today the Freedom Funds lineup boasts choices to the year 2050.

Allocation Varies Among Vendors

While all target-date funds operate in a similar fashion, allocation ratios vary. T. Rowe Price takes the most aggressive approach to allocation. "We are different from everyone else," Clark said. "We are not focused on retirement but the 30 year distribution period that follows retirement."

The following information is from year 2016:

  • Fidelity Freedom 2035 fund: stocks 94% – fixed income 6%
  • TIAA-CREF Lifecycle 2035 Retirement fund: stocks 81% – fixed income 19%
  • T. Rowe Price Retirement 2035 fund: stocks 82% – fixed income 18%
  • Vanguard Target Retirement 2035 fund: stocks 81% – fixed income 19%

For complete information on asset allocation consult each company's website

What Happens When the Target Date is Reached?

There is some variance among vendors, but generally the fund remains open for about five years as it gradually reduces stock exposure until its allocation mirrors that of a static (fixed) retirement fund (typically a 20% stock/80% fixed investment mix). At that point the fund is rolled into a static retirement fund operated by each vendor. T. Rowe Price takes a more aggressive approach that moves investors from a 55% stock/45% fixed investment mix at target date, down to a 20% stock/80% fixed investment mix over a 30 year period. If desired an investor can choose to be transferred to a static retirement fund (40% stock/60% fixed investment mix) at any time. T. Rowe Price cites the example of a 65-year-old retiree and an 85-year-old retiree. Manager Clark believes these investors have different time horizons and should have the choice of different retirement allocation options.

Fees Less Than Average Mutual Fund Cost

Target-date retirement funds offered by T. Rowe Price, Vanguard, TIAA-CREF (known as a lifecycle fund) and Fidelity (known as freedom fund) are all no-load and charge fees that are significantly less than the average mutual fund charge of 1.4 percent (Morningstar).

The following information is from year 2016:

  • Fidelity Freedom 2035 fund charges 0.75 percent. 
  • TIAA-CREF Lifecycle 2035 Retirement fund charges 0.88 percent.
  • T. Rowe Price Retirement 2035 fund charges 0.77 percent.
  • Vanguard Target Retirement 2035 fund charges 0.15 percent.

It is important to note that target date products are often funds made up of other mutual funds. T. Rowe Price, TIAA-CREF and Fidelity mostly employ actively managed products, while Vanguard relies mostly on index funds. For complete information on fund composition and fees consult each company's website.

Appealing Product for Plan Sponsors

Plan sponsors often lack money to provide retirement plan communication and financial education to employees. With target-date funds, plan sponsors can rest assured that they are providing a simple, cost-effective way for most employees to save for retirement that ensures the most crucial aspect of saving for retirement: proper allocation. A growing number of employers are using target-date funds as the default contribution and automatically enrolling new hires in age-suitable funds. "It makes perfect sense," said Fidelity vice-president market manager Tim Rouse. "The employer knows they are OK as far as proper asset allocation goes."

Appealing Product for Participants

"They appreciate the logic of it," said T. Rowe Price's Clark. "It makes sense." Vanguard's John Woerth echoes this sentiment: "These funds are designed for investors seeking a simple solution to their retirement needs whether they are in the accumulation, transition or withdrawal phase."

Designed to be Sole Investment in Portfolio

Because target-date funds promise diversification in a single fund they should be the sole investment in a portfolio. Mixing target-date funds with other funds can throw an investor's portfolio out of proper diversification. For example, if a person with a 2015 target-date mutual fund also owns stock funds, they may be overweighted in stock holdings, especially for an investor less than a decade from retirement. This isn't to say investors should never combine target-date funds with other funds, but if they do they must factor all of their holdings to determine if they are properly allocated for their investment situation.

No Single Approach is Suitable for All Investors

While no single approach is suitable to all investors, beginners and experts alike may appreciate the pure simplicity of the target-date approach which is important when so much about investing can be confusing: stocks, bonds, cash, value, growth, risk, allocation, small-cap, large-cap, sector fund, sub account, front-end load, back-end load, surrender charge, M & E, 12b-1, etc., etc., etc.

Note: This story was written in 2004 but has been updated with current allocation and fee information.

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