Guide to Glide Paths for 401(k)

By Paulina Likos · March 13, 2024 · 7 minute read

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Guide to Glide Paths for 401(k)

Asset managers use a “glide path” to determine how the asset allocation of a target-date retirement fund will change based on the number of years until the fund’s target date. Each target-date fund has its own glide path, though they typically begin with a more aggressive allocation that gets more conservative over time.

The idea behind most target date fund glide paths is that investors with a longer-term time horizon should have a higher percentage of their portfolio in riskier assets, like stocks, since they have time to recover from short-term volatility. As their retirement date approaches (or once they’ve started retirement), investors likely will benefit from a more conservative portfolio that protects the assets they’ve already accumulated.

What Is a Glide Path?

The glide path is the formula that asset managers choose when they put together a target-date mutual fund that determines how and when that portfolio will adjust its asset allocation over time.

Target-date funds (and their glide paths) are common investment choices in 401(k) accounts, as well as in other types or retirement accounts, such as a Roth or traditional IRA set up through a brokerage account.

A key component to saving for retirement is having a suitable mix of investments that allow for portfolio diversification. Early on, most glide paths focus on stocks that typically offer the greatest potential to grow in value over time and then shift to bonds and other fixed-income investments according to the investor’s risk tolerance to manage volatile price swings as they grow older.

Understanding Glide Path

The glide paths within target-date funds aim to create a set-it-and-forget-it investing option for retirement savers, who may get diversification based on their time horizon within a single fund. Investors who are younger and have 20 to 30 years until retirement typically need to maximize their portfolio growth, which requires a much higher allocation toward stocks.

By comparison, someone who is nearing retirement or has already retired, may need to scale back on their portfolio risk. Glide path investing automatically reallocates the latter investor’s portfolio toward bonds which are typically lower risk investments with lower returns compared to stocks but provide portfolio stability. That also generally means that younger investors in a target-date fund will typically have higher 401(k) returns than older investors.

Types of Glide Paths for Retirement Investing

There are different glide path strategies depending on an investor’s risk tolerance and when they plan to retire. Typically, target-date funds have a declining glide path, although the rate at which it declines (and the investments within its allocation vary depending on the fund).

Declining Glide Path

A declining glide path reduces the amount of risk that a target-date fund takes over time. In general, it makes sense for retirees or those approaching retirement to reduce their investment risk with a more conservative portfolio as they age. A decreasing glide path is the more common approach used. It involves a higher equity risk allocation that steadily declines as retirement approaches.

Static Glide Path

Some target-date funds may have a static glide path during some years. During this time, the investment mix would remain at a set allocation, such as 60% stocks and 40% bonds. Managers maintaining portfolios that have a static glide path rebalance them regularly to maintain this allocation.

Rising Glide Path

Some specialists believe that the glide path should begin to rise again once an investor reaches retirement age, taking on more risk over time. This argument takes the position that increasing risk in a retiree’s portfolio could reduce volatility in the early stages of retirement when the portfolio is at risk of losing the most wealth in the event of a stock market decline.

An increasing glide path may be an option to consider for retirees with pension benefits or higher withdrawal rates or those who are working in retirement. If a retiree understands the risk involved and is comfortable taking it on, this strategy might make sense, however, generally speaking, the rising glide path is the least utilized method for retirement planning.

💡 Quick Tip: Before opening any investment account, consider what level of risk you are comfortable with. If you’re not sure, start with more conservative investments, and then adjust your portfolio as you learn more.

Choosing the Right Glide Path

If you’re saving for retirement in a 401(k), there may only be one target-date option available to you based on your target-retirement age. However, if you have choices within your 401(k) or you’re choosing a target-date fund within an individual retirement account or another investment vehicle, you’ll want to look for a target-date fund with a strategy that aligns with your investment view.

One rule of thumb uses the “rule of 100,” which subtracts the investor’s age from 100 to determine the percentage of your portfolio that should be in stocks. However, some managers use glide paths that decline more or less quickly than that.

Some target-date funds also incorporate alternative assets, such as private equity or real estate, in addition to traditional stocks and bonds.

”To” or “Through” Retirement

When glide paths reach retirement date, they can take one of two approaches, either a “To” or “Through” approach. A “To” retirement glide path is a target-date fund strategy that reaches its most conservative asset allocation when retirement starts. This strategy generally holds lower exposure to risk assets during the working phase and at the target retirement date. This means, at retirement, it reduces exposure to riskier assets, like equities, and moves into more conservative assets, like bonds.

“Through” glide paths tend to maintain a higher allocation toward riskier assets as investors accumulate savings at their target retirement date and years into retirement. This means exposure to equities in retirement tends to be higher, at least in the first few years of retirement.

In choosing which path is best suited to you, you must determine your risk tolerance and how aggressive or conservative you are able to be. This includes deciding how much exposure to equities you can afford to have. Decreasing exposure to stocks means investors may not have to worry as much about a portfolio that fluctuates in value, whereas an increased exposure to equities may mean a portfolio with more volatility that could have potential for greater gains over time.

The Takeaway

Glide paths are formulas that investment managers create to determine the level of risk in a target-date fund. The idea is that a portfolio automatically adjusts itself based on risk tolerance that changes as the investor ages, allowing for a more hands-off approach.

Glide paths are common investment choices in retirement accounts such as 401(k)s and IRAs. As you’re determining your retirement savings strategy, carefully consider whether they may make sense for you.

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What does glide path approach mean?

A glide path refers to a formula that asset managers use to determine the allocation mix of assets in a target-date retirement portfolio and how it changes over time. A target-date retirement portfolio tends to become more conservative as the investor ages, but there are multiple glide paths to take account to a retiree’s risk tolerance.

What is a retirement glide path?

A retirement glide path is the approach within a target-date fund that includes a diversified portfolio of stocks and bonds. Retirement glide paths typically start out with a more aggressive mix of investments and get more conservative over time.

Which type of mutual fund follows a glide path?

Target-date retirement funds are the most common type of mutual fund that follows a glide path. However managers may also use glide paths for other time-focused, long-term investments, such as 529 retirement accounts.

What is an example of a glide path?

Here is one example of a glide path: Say an investor plans to retire in 2050 and buys a target-date 2050 fund. If the investor is using a declining glide path strategy, it will automatically reduce the amount of risk that the target-date fund takes over time. So, for instance, the target-date fund might have 70% stocks and 30% bonds at the beginning, but over time, the amount allocated to stocks will steadily decline, and the amount allocated to bonds will steadily increase —making the portfolio more conservative as the investor approaches retirement.

What are the benefits of a glide path?

Benefits of a glide path may include making investing easier because the process of changing asset allocation is automatic, and allowing for an essentially hands-off approach since glide paths are professionally managed. However, there are drawbacks to consider as well, including possibly higher management fees for some target-date funds.

Photo credit: iStock/akinbostanci

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