The Trouble with Target Date Funds

target date fundsTarget date funds have become the go-to investment choice for many Americans. In fact, they are now offered in over 80% of 401(k) plans nationwide. As a result, hundreds of billions has been invested in these funds. Why do Americans like them? Because they have the premise of being simple investments that happen to be perfectly ready at the “target date”. However, this is not always the case.


What is a Target Date Fund

A target date fund is simply a mutual fund that is designed to be the “appropriate” allocation of risk/reward based on the retirement date listed on the fund. For example, a Target Date 2020 Fund is supposedly designed to be the appropriate allocation of stocks and bonds for someone who is going to retire in 2020, which is 9 years away. This fund would most likely invest more heavily in bonds, and less in stocks, than say, a Target Date 2050, where the retirement age is almost 40 years away.

It is important to look at how these funds are made up: stocks, bonds, cash, or even real estate and commodities, can make up a fund. In fact, some of these funds are even funds of funds, meaning that for the stock percentage, they may invest in a stock mutual fund, and for the bond percentage, own a bond fund.

It is also important to note that these funds don’t offer any guarantees. Yes, they put a date on the fund. But that date really means nothing. Its not the date when your money is ready. It is simply the date that the fund chose to base its risk/reward model off of. Thus, you are still exposed to risk in these funds.


Biggest Risks of Target Date Funds

  1. The Fees: The fees of Target Date Funds are not usually the best. In fact, the average Target Date Fund has an expense ratio of 0.69%. While it’s not bad, it’s not great. However, these fees can really add of over long time frames, such as purchasing a Target Date 2050 fund. The fees can be even higher for Target Date Funds that are “funds of funds”, since they also have hidden fees in the investments they own. Concerned about fees? Look for Target Date Funds with low expense ratios, around 0.20%. Or, simply create a balanced allocation yourself with a stock and bond fund, which can be had for very low fees.
  2. False Sense of Safety: Given that these funds are called “Target Date Funds” and they are available in 401(k)s nationwide, it is widely assumed that these funds are safe ways to invest for retirement. It is important to remember that the date listed is only the guide the investment company uses in a calculation. It does not guarantee anything, and may not even line up with individual risk and reward structures. It also doesn’t take into consideration your entire portfolio, which could include other stock or bond holdings. Basically, do your own research on what your asset allocation should be.
  3. The Hidden Contents: It is almost impossible to tell what is inside these funds, and how the funds will perform in certain circumstances. Yes, they give a date. But each investment company has a different model for what a portfolio should look like based on that date. If you invest in the fund, you should know the allocation of stocks, bonds, and cash right up front. You should also know what the fund is going to do in adverse market conditions: ride it out or shelter in bonds. It is important to remember that bonds are trading at all time highs right now, so even your Target Date Funds could suffer major losses ahead.
  4. They Only Work While Working: Target Date Funds are also only designed to be used when accumulating wealth for retirement. Once you reach the date, the portfolio doesn’t change into one where you can withdraw from it easily. In fact, you will most likely end up having to sell the entire fund and start again. Most Target Date Funds simply stop changing the allocation at the Target Date. So, if the model calls for 90% invested in bonds at the date, it will stay that way infinitely.

All of these risks should be carefully considered when investing in Target Date Funds. They may be good options for people looking for “simple”. However, even simple can be complicated and expensive. Just like any investment product, know it inside and out.

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  1. says

    I think target funds definitely have their place. Not everyone wants to learn about this stuff… there’s a huge market for “set it and forget it” retirement planning. Are they for everyone? No. but what is?

    • says

      You’re right about there being a market for set and forget. I think that there needs to be a market as well for what happens once you reach the target date though.

  2. says

    My Roth is set up as a target date fund right now, but I hope to change that as I learn more about investing. I’d love to know what to do, but it’s very hard for most people to understand! I think that’s why target date funds appeal to so many people.

  3. says

    The target date fund at my company does have high fees. If I actually like the allocation, though, I figured out I am able to research what the target date fund includes and re-create it on my own – which means smaller fees. This may only be possible because my company has a limited number of options to invest in due to independence issues, but something for everyone to consider.

    • says

      That can be tough to do inside a company sponsored plan. However, once you retire or leave the company, you can roll your investment into an IRA and allocate it however you’d like.

  4. says

    I think the Target date funds are great for people who are starting out. Let’s face it, investing is very difficult and anything that make it easier will help young people start saving. Once you learn more about investment, then you’ll know that Target date funds have some issues and you can set up your own plan.

  5. says

    I have most of my investing in target date funds but that will change once I have enough money to diversify on my own. My mom has some of her money in target date funds because otherwise she won’t rebalance. She was at 100% stocks during the last crash and she was over 50 and wanted to retire at 55. Now she will have to wait till 62-65 to retire.

    • says

      You put an “S” on the end, so do you have more than one target date fund? If so, this defeats the purpose of them altogether.

  6. says

    There are still a lot of people who do not know what allocation to use for their retirement portfolio and this is where target date funds would come in. In most cases, people do not have a choice when it comes to the 401k plans since they can only select what their companies have.

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