Target Date Fund Basics for Financial Counselors

By Barbara O’Neill, Ph.D., CFP®

The May 26, 2015 MFLN Personal Finance webinar is about target date funds (TDFs), including the L fund investment option available in the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP) for federal government employees and service members. Also known as lifecycle funds (that’s what the “L” stands for), target date funds are “all in one” portfolios that typically include three types of investment categories known as asset classes: stocks, bonds, and cash equivalents (e.g., money market funds). Their asset allocation weightings (e.g., 50% stock, 30% bonds, 20% cash) automatically adjust and become more conservative (i.e., lower stock percentage) over time.

By viZZZual.com
By viZZZual.com

Target date funds typically have a date in their name such as the “2050 fund” and investors chose a fund with a date that is close to their expected year of retirement. Dates are spaced out at 5- or 10-year intervals (e.g., 2030, 2035, etc.). Most TDFs are “funds of funds” with underlying funds from the same fund family. Examples include Fidelity Freedom Funds, Vanguard Target Retirement Funds, and T.Rowe Price Retirement Funds.

TDFs were created in 1994 and have gained popularity in the last decade as a qualified default investment alternative (QDIA) for tax-deferred retirement savings plans such as 401(k)s and, starting in October 2015, TSP accounts for new federal employees. Some employees who are enrolled in employer investment plans fail to provide instructions for investing their deposits. In these cases, employers invest their plan contributions in the default investment. Investors also like TDF’s “low maintenance” style for savings outside of workplace plans.

Below are key facts about target date (lifecycle) funds that investors and those who counsel them need to know:

  • TDFs generally only make sense if they include the bulk of someone’s retirement savings. Otherwise, their asset allocation is altered by “outside” investments, which contradicts the whole premise of using them.
  • A defining characteristic of TDFs is their glide path, which determines the asset allocation mix over time. Pictured as a descending staircase, the glide path indicates how the stock percentage decreases over time.
  • Glide paths are a critical factor in TDF performance and investment companies use several types of glide path methods. Glide paths are used in both TDFs and age-adjusted portfolios in 529 college savings plans.
  • “To” glide path TDFs assume that retirement age is the target date and, at that point, the portfolio’s stock % weighting and investment mix remains static. “Through” glide path TDFs continue to decrease the stock percentage for a designated number of years after the target date before leveling off.
  • The “landing point” is the point in the glide path where a TDF reaches its lowest stock % allocation. Not surprisingly, TDFs with different glide paths and landing points have very different risk profiles.
  • TDFs are not without controversy. Performance issues during the financial crisis brought to light the fact that many TDFs were not as conservatively positioned as their names implied. This led to new disclosure rules by the Securities and Exchange Commission in 2010, including better disclosure of TDF glide paths.

To this webinar on May 26  at 11 a.m. ET or to view the recording, visit the event page.

This post was published on the Military Families Learning Network blog on May 12, 2015.

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