A target date fund is a type of mutual fund designed to be an all-inclusive portfolio for long-term goals like retirement. While target date funds could be used for shorter-term purposes, the specified date of each fund — e.g. 2040, 2050, 2065, etc. — is typically years in the future, and indicates the approximate point at which the investor would begin withdrawing funds for their retirement needs (or another goal, like saving for college).
Unlike a regular mutual fund, which might include a relatively static mix of stocks and bonds, the underlying portfolio of a target date fund shifts its allocation over time, following what is known as a glide path. The glide path is basically a formula or algorithm that adjusts the fund’s asset allocation to become more conservative as the target date approaches, thus protecting investors’ money from potential volatility as they age.
If you’re wondering whether a target date fund might be the right choice for you, here are some things to consider.
What Is a Target Date Fund?
A target date fund (TDF) is a type of mutual fund where the underlying portfolio of the fund adjusts over time to become gradually more conservative until the fund reaches the “target date.” By starting out with a more aggressive allocation and slowly dialing back as years pass, the fund’s underlying portfolio may be able to deliver growth while minimizing risk.
This ready-made type of fund can be appealing to those who have a big goal (like retirement or saving for college), and who don’t want the uncertainty or potential risk of managing their money on their own.
While many college savings plans offer a target date option, target date funds are primarily used for retirement planning. The date of most target funds is typically specified by year, e.g. 2035, 2040, and so on. This enables investors to choose a fund that more or less matches their own target retirement date. For example, a 30-year-old today might plan to retire in 38 years at age 68, or in 2060. In that case, they might select a 2060 target date fund.
Investors typically choose target date funds for retirement because these funds are structured as long-term investment portfolios that include a ready-made asset allocation, or mix of stocks, bonds, and/or other securities. In a traditional portfolio, the investor chooses the securities — not so with a target fund. The investments within the fund, as well as the asset allocation, and the glide path (which adjusts the allocation over time), are predetermined by the fund provider.
Sometimes target date funds are invested directly in securities, but more commonly TDFs are considered “funds of funds,” and are invested in other mutual funds.
Target date funds don’t provide guaranteed income, like pensions, and they can gain or lose money, like any other investment.
Whereas an investor might have to rebalance their own portfolio over time to maintain their desired asset allocation, adjusting the mix of equities vs. fixed income to their changing needs or risk tolerance, target date funds do the rebalancing for the investor. This is what’s known as the glide path.
How Do Target Date Funds Work?
Now that we know what a target date fund is, we can move on to a detailed consideration of how these funds work. To understand the value of target date funds and why they’ve become so popular, it helps to know a bit about the history of retirement planning.
Brief Overview of Retirement Funding
In the last century or so, with technological and medical advances prolonging life, it has become important to help people save additional money for their later years. To that end, the United States introduced Social Security in 1935 as a type of public pension that would provide additional income for people as they aged. Social Security was meant to supplement people’s personal savings, family resources, and/or the pension supplied by their employer (if they had one).
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By the late 1970s, though, the notion of steady income from an employer-provided pension was on the wane. So in 1978 a new retirement vehicle was introduced to help workers save and invest: the 401(k) plan.
While 401k accounts were provided by employers, they were and are chiefly funded by employee savings (and sometimes supplemental employer matching funds as well). But after these accounts were introduced, it quickly became clear that while some people were able to save a portion of their income, most didn’t know how to invest or manage these accounts.
The Need for Target Date Funds
To address this hurdle and help investors plan for the future, the notion of lifecycle or target date funds emerged. The idea was to provide people with a pre-set portfolio that included a mix of assets that would rebalance over time to protect investors from risk.
In theory, by the time the investor was approaching retirement, the fund’s asset allocation would be more conservative, thus potentially protecting them from losses. (Note: There has been some criticism of TDFs about their equity allocation after the target date has been reached. More on that below.)
Target date funds became increasingly popular after the Pension Protection Act of 2006 sanctioned the use of auto-enrollment features in 401k plans. Automatically enrolling employees into an organization’s retirement plan seemed smart — but raised the question of where to put employees’ money. This spurred the need for safe-harbor investments like target date funds, which are considered Qualified Default Investment Alternatives (QDIA) — and many 401k plans adopted the use of target date funds as their default investment.
Today nearly all employer-sponsored plans offer at least one target date fund option; some use target funds as their default investment choice (for those who don’t choose their own investments). Approximately $1.8 trillion dollars are invested in target funds, according to Morningstar.
What a Target Date Fund Is and Is Not
Target date funds have been subject to some misconceptions over time. Here are some key points to know about TDFs:
• As noted above, target date funds don’t provide guaranteed income; i.e. they are not pensions. The amount you withdraw for income depends on how much is in the fund, and an array of other factors, e.g. your Social Security benefit and other investments.
• Target date funds don’t “stop” at the retirement date. This misconception can be especially problematic for investors who believe, incorrectly, that they must withdraw their money at the target date, or who believe the fund’s allocation becomes static at this point. To clarify:
◦ The withdrawal of funds from a target date fund is determined by the type of account it’s in. Withdrawals from a TDF held in a 401k plan or IRA, for example, would be subject to taxes and required minimum distribution (RMD) rules.
◦ The TDF’s asset allocation may continue to shift, even after the target date — a factor that has also come under criticism.
• Generally speaking, most investors don’t need more than one target date fund. Nothing is stopping you from owning one or two or several TDFs, but there is typically no need for multiple TDFs, as the holdings in one could overlap with the holdings in another — especially if they all have the same target date.
Example of a Target Date Fund
Most investment companies offer target date funds, from Black Rock to Vanguard to Charles Schwab, Fidelity, Wells Fargo, and so on. And though each company may have a different name for these funds (a lifecycle fund vs. a retirement fund, etc.), most include the target date. So a Retirement Fund 2050 would be similar to a Lifecycle Fund 2050.
How do you tell target date funds apart? Is one fund better than another? One way to decide which fund might suit you is to look at the glide path of the target date funds you’re considering. Basically, the glide path shows you what the asset allocation of the fund will be at different points in time. Since, again, you can’t change the allocation of the target fund — that’s governed by the managers or the algorithm that runs the fund — it’s important to feel comfortable with the fund’s asset allocation strategy.
How a Glide Path Might Work
Consider a target date fund for the year 2060. Someone who is about 30 today might purchase a 2060 target fund, as they will be 68 at the target date.
Hypothetically speaking, the portfolio allocation of a 2060 fund today — 38 years from the target date — might be 80% equities and 20% fixed income or cash/cash equivalents. This provides investors with potential for growth. And while there is also some risk exposure with an 80% investment in stocks, there is still time for the portfolio to recover from any losses, before money is withdrawn for retirement.
When five or 10 years have passed, the fund’s allocation might adjust to 70% equities and 30% fixed income securities. After another 10 years, say, the allocation might be closer to 50-50. The allocation at the target date, in the actual year 2060, might then be 30% equities, and 70% fixed income. (These percentages are hypothetical.)
As noted above, the glide path might continue to adjust the fund’s allocation for a few years after the target date, so it’s important to examine the final stages of the glide path. You may want to move your assets from the target fund at the point where the predetermined allocation no longer suits your goals or preferences.
Pros and Cons of Target Date Funds
Like any other type of investment, target date funds have their advantages and disadvantages.
• Simplicity. Target funds are designed to be the “one-stop-shopping” option in the investment world. That’s not to say these funds are perfect, but like a good prix fixe menu, they are designed to include the basic staples you want in a retirement portfolio.
• Diversification. Related to the above, most target funds offer a well-diversified mix of securities.
• Low maintenance. Since the glide path adjusts the investment mix in these funds automatically, there’s no need to rebalance, buy, sell, or do anything except sit back and keep an eye on things. But they are not “set it and forget it” funds, as some might say. It’s important for investors to decide whether the investment mix and/or related fees remain a good fit over time.
• Affordability. Generally speaking, target date funds may be less expensive than the combined expenses of a DIY portfolio (although that depends; see below).
• Lack of control. Similar to an ordinary mutual fund or exchange-traded fund (ETF), investors cannot choose different securities than the ones available in the fund, and they cannot adjust the mix of securities in a TDF or the asset allocation. This could be frustrating or limiting to investors who would like more control over their portfolio.
• Costs can vary. Some target date funds are invested in index funds, which are passively managed and typically very low cost. Others may be invested in actively managed funds, which typically charge higher expense ratios. Be sure to check, as investment costs add up over time and can significantly impact returns.
What Are Target Date Funds Good For?
If you’re looking for an uncomplicated long-term investment option, a low-cost target date fund could be a great choice for you. But they may not be right for every investor.
Target date funds tend to be a good fit for those who want a hands-off, low-maintenance retirement or long-term investment option.
A target date fund might also be good for someone who has a fairly simple long-term strategy, and just needs a stable portfolio option to fit into their plan.
In a similar vein, target funds can be right for investors who are less experienced in managing their own investment portfolios and prefer a ready-made product.
Not Good For…
Target date funds are likely not a good fit for experienced investors who enjoy being hands on, and who are confident in their ability to manage their investments for the long term.
Target date funds are also not right for investors who are skilled at making short-term trades, and who are interested in sophisticated investment options like day-trading, derivatives, cryptocurrencies, and more.
Investors who like having control over their portfolios and having the ability to make choices based on market opportunities might find target funds too limited.
Target date funds can be an excellent option for investors who aren’t geared toward day-to-day portfolio management, but who need a solid long-term investment portfolio for retirement — or another long-term goal like saving for college. Target funds offer a predetermined mix of investments, and this portfolio doesn’t require rebalancing because that’s done automatically by the glide path function of the fund itself.
The glide path is basically an asset allocation and rebalancing feature that can be algorithmic, or can be monitored by an investment team — either way it frees up investors who don’t want to make those decisions. Instead, the fund chugs along over the years, maintaining a diversified portfolio of assets until the investor retires and is ready to withdraw the funds.
Target funds are offered by most investment companies, and although they often go by different names, you can generally tell a target date fund because it includes the target date, e.g. 2040, 2050, 2065, etc.
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