Saturday, October 11, 2014

Moving Targets

Before target-date funds were “cool” (or widely available), I had steered my mother toward an asset-allocation fund as a good place to invest her retirement plan rollover balance.

The logic was, I thought, impeccable: A professional money manager would be keeping an eye on and rebalancing those investments on a regular basis. The fee was reasonable, and the portfolio was split about 60/40 between stocks and bonds, which also seemed reasonable in view of her investment horizon. From time to time Mom would call and ask if we needed to rebalance that investment — and I confidently assured her that there was no need to do so, that the fund’s design took that into account.

Then at some point (though definitely between 2006 and 2008) that professional manager decided that a “better” allocation was to shift the asset allocation to be invested nearly entirely in stocks. Now, knowing how such things work, I can’t imagine that a shift that dramatic wasn’t clearly and concisely communicated to holders on a timely basis — or at least in a manner that the legal profession deemed sufficient. But by the time we realized what had happened — well, that reasonably priced professional fund management wound up feeling more like someone had decided to bet it all on “red.”

With that experience under my belt, and a wary eye on recent market movements, I couldn’t help but notice a Reuters report this week which noted that within the last year, several large target-date fund providers had increased the equity allocations of their TDFs. Now, honestly, I don’t know what their previous allocations were, much less where they currently stand, nor am I privy to the rationale behind these moves. I don't know if it's a broad-based shift across their entire family, or specifically focused on those with longer time horizons.

The Reuters piece is cautionary in tone — basically intimating that these moves might be underway at a time when the markets have peaked, with an undertow of concern that the timing could be problematic. Doubtless the headline will draw clicks, if not concern — after all, you don’t have to be very old or in this business very long, to remember that just prior to the onset of the 2008 financial crisis, several performance-lagging TDF managers made what seemed, at least in hindsight, to be a badly timed equity shift in their portfolios. Nor was it that long ago that we heard concerns expressed by participants, particularly older ones (and subsequently regulators on their behalf) who were, in the aftermath of that crisis, surprised to find just how much exposure their TDF investments had to those equity markets.  

Despite these concerns, TDFs have continued to gain prominence in retirement plans, and in retirement plan participant balances. Consider that nearly three-quarters (72%) of 401(k) plans in the EBRI/ICI 401(k) database included TDFs in their investment lineup at year-end 2012, and 41% of the roughly 24 million 401(k) participants in that database held TDFs. Consider as well that at year-end 2012, 43% of the account balances of recently hired participants in their 20s were invested in TDFs. Older workers have not been as inclined to invest in those options, though it may simply be that, as older workers, they aren’t as likely to have been defaulted there.

Whether or not this time will be different in result, only time will tell. But we can all hope that the communications about such shifts are understood and appreciated by plan participants and plan sponsors before the results make it too late to do so.

Nevin E. Adams, JD

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