Saturday, June 07, 2008

A “Simple” Plan

More than a decade ago, my mom was getting her finances ready for retirement. A schoolteacher her whole life (except for that swathe of time when she set that aside to be at home with her brood during their formative years), there weren’t a lot of varied sources and complicated tax planning to worry about. The most significant component was the balance she had accumulated in her 403(b) plan.

Then, as now, I fancied that I had at least enough investment savvy to make reasonable investment decisions for myself–and I’ve never been shy about offering my sense of the markets to anyone willing to listen (and worth every penny they paid for that advice, I might add). But this was my mother’s money–and a significant component of what she would need to live on for the rest of her life. Frankly, I was nervous about making a decision that would wipe out her years of savings.

Fortunately, I had the presence of mind to recommend an asset-allocation fund. Nothing too fancy, certainly in hindsight–just your basic 60/40 mix split between the S&P 500 and Treasury bonds, in a very reasonably priced mix. It helped that Mom had been paying attention in those education meetings over the years: She understood the importance of diversification, the balance of stocks and bonds, and was willing to have a larger exposure to stocks than many in her age cohort might have preferred. And, from the standpoint of a well-intentioned but frequently preoccupied son, it was a relief knowing that someone who actually manages money for a living would be keeping an eye on things.

About six months later, during one of our periodic calls, Mom asked if it wasn’t time to put some of that money in another fund. I was puzzled, Had she been disappointed with the fund’s performance (this at a time when one might well have wished for a higher apportionment to equities)? No, she said she had no issues there. Was it a problem with the fund company itself, I asked? Was she worried about their financial stability? After all, it was a mutual fund, not a bank; so, was she worried that it didn’t really have anything like FDIC insurance? No, she said, there was no problem there, so long as she knew. Well then, I asked, why did she want to move some of it to another fund?

“Because,” she explained patiently,“isn’t it important to diversify my investments?”

Now, I thought I had done a brilliant job of explaining the asset-allocation fund premise–how that diversification was accomplished within the fund on an ongoing basis by people who spent their working hours paying attention to such things. But to her great credit, my mom–who had no real education in investing or the market other than what she got in the workplace–may not have known what to invest in, but she did know that you shouldn’t put all your eggs in one basket.

That wasn’t the last discussion I would have with Mom on the subject (though she let a respectable amount of time pass before she brought it up again). Not because she didn’t hear and understand my explanation, but because, IMHO, after a lifetime of having to make the investment decisions herself, she just couldn’t quite believe that the “right” thing to do was to invest it in a single mutual fund.

Things are even better for participants now, of course. Asset-allocation funds have long since incorporated sophisticated risk evaluations, and target-date funds make it easy for participants to make respectable decisions without even that “bother.” Those solutions have their imperfections, of course. But I wonder how much different the focus of participant-directed savings programs might be today if those kinds of solutions (1) had been available then.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

(1) I realize that profit-sharing programs have long operated in a “balanced account” structure that didn’t require participant-direction (or, in most cases, participant funding). On the other hand, from the very beginning, accounts funded with employee contributions have sought to give participants the opportunity to decide how to invest their own money.

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