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Target-date funds a solution

Now that we've been fending for ourselves with respect to managing our own retirement plans for the past couple of decades, we're all professional investors, right? We know exactly which funds to buy in our 401(k) plans and IRA accounts. We also know how much to allocate to the various stock and bond fund options.

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Well, maybe not. The Employee Benefit Research Institute released a study that suggests we're muddling through investment decisions, often taking stances that are way too conservative or, conversely, way too aggressive.

For instance, about one-fifth of investors in their 30s, 40s, 50s and up to age 64 have all their money invested in interest-earning assets. That's too much exposure to fixed income, no matter how old or risk-intolerant investors are. At the other end of the risk spectrum, nearly one-third of investors in the same age range invest 100 percent of their money in equities. That may make sense for younger investors who have a long time horizon to retirement, but it's a pretty risky bet for older investors.

Meanwhile, more than a quarter of investors have a mix of bonds and stocks -- a good thing -- but with less than 50 percent allocated to the latter, riskier asset class. Some would judge this to be too conservative for everyone but older investors.

These figures come from the Survey of Consumer Finances, a study conducted by the Federal Reserve Board once every three years.

One solution: target-date funds
Target-date, target-retirement or life-cycle funds, as they are interchangeably called, are becoming staple items in 401(k) plans these days. Some 30 fund firms offer them, and more are joining the fray, most recently BlackRock, American Funds and OppenheimerFunds. Some observers predict these funds will be the biggest money magnet in the industry over the next few years for several reasons.

How target-date funds work, why they're popular:
Easy solution for investors with no time to research fund options in their retirement plans.
Investors choose the target date that coincides with the year in which they wish to retire.
As target date approaches, the fund shifts assets to a more conservative stance.
Employers can use these funds as default options in automatic enrollment plans.

"They are very low maintenance, one-stop shopping options," says Greg Carlson, a fund analyst at Morningstar. "Some people have become overwhelmed by the number of choices out there in the mutual fund arena, and they've lost some confidence in their ability to build portfolios as a result of the recent bear market."

In fact, with few exceptions, most of these funds opened for business during or subsequent to the 2000-2002 bear market in which the stock market contracted by nearly 50 percent.

"After so many fund companies rolled out technology funds at the end of the bull market and at the start of the bear market, they maybe took a step back and realized they needed to offer something more diversified," says Carlson.

Mind you, the fund industry's motives had less to do with concern about investor welfare and more to do with growing the business.

"It's better to have a fund where you're getting steady inflows rather than sharp inflows and then steep outflows," Carlson says.

Short track records
Because they're relative newcomers to the retirement-plan scene, it's hard to predict what type of performance you can expect over the long run with these funds. And investors who may want to look at how they're structured -- to use as a guide on how to construct their own portfolios, perhaps -- will be surprised to see how different they are, one from another.

That means investors are not off the hook from performing due diligence before determining if these funds are right for them.

 
 
Next: "Which funds does Morningstar favor?"
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