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The case against target retirement funds

Updated on August 10, 2015

Target retirement funds are available in many 401K plans.

Most of the 401K plans I have reviewed have target retirement funds. These funds are easy to identify because they usually have a date in their fund name. Two examples are the Fidelity Freedom 2030 fund or the Vanguard target retirement 2030 fund.

I want to start out saying some good things about these funds. Sometimes in a 401K or 403B these funds are the best option for the investor only due to the limited number of investments offered in a 401K or 403B. These funds practice a pretty good asset allocation. Most of these funds are broadly diversified and many invest in more than 10 mutual funds. If an investor is unwilling to take steps to monitor and modify their investments target retirement funds are reasonable options.

Target retirement funds perform an asset allocation on one criterion a person’s age or as the fund may state the date they wish to retire. To use an analogy that would be like saying everyone age 45 should be in the same investments. People have differing tolerance for risk. Some people cannot stand when their 401K loses a dime. Others see it as an opportunity to buy more shares at a lower price. Clearly these two people who may be the same age should not have the same asset allocation.

Better investing means more money.

Most investors can do better than target retirement funds
Most investors can do better than target retirement funds

Most investors can do better than target retirement funds

I compared the performance of four target retirement funds for the date 2030 and found little difference between all four funds and the S&P 500 index. Good but not spectacular performance.

Looking at the funds the T Rowe Price Target 2030 Fund is a five star fund as rated by Morningstar. Looking into its top ten holdings one sees several mutual funds all of which are T Rowe Price funds. That means that all of the research is done by T Rowe Price. That means less diversity in your portfolio than you would at first believe. The top holding is the T. Rowe Price Value Fund. This is a very middle of the road fund. It is rated 3 stars. All of the top ten holdings are three and four star funds.

Another fund the Fidelity Freedom 2030 fund is a three star fund as rated by Morningstar. This funds performance does not vary significantly from the T Rowe Price Target 2030 Fund listed above. Like the Price fund all of the top ten funds are Fidelity funds. Two of the funds are relatively new and unrated others range from 2 star to 4 star. Many of the funds in the Fidelity Freedom 2030 are very large bloated fund which I would recommend selling if owned in an account. Still the performance of the Fidelity Freedom 2030 fund is not significantly different from the T Rowe Price Target 2030 Fund.

Out of all of the 2030 funds I investigated I found the stock portion of the portfolio to be from 71 percent to 85 percent. All of the funds with the exception of the Wells Fargo Advantage DJ Target 2030 fund were composed totally of funds from the parent fund company. The Wells Fargo Advantage DJ Target 2030 is a little different type of fund as this fund owns single stocks.

As far as asset allocation goes the target retirement funds are pretty good. Target retirement funds are a bastion of mediocrity. One could make much worse investment decisions but a wise investor could do much better. I would like to see you do better with your hard earned money.

By selecting the best mutual funds an investor can far outperform a target retirement fund. Select the best small cap,best mid cap, large cap,concentrated portfolio, international and bond funds and you will have a better tomorrow.

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    • Daddy Paul profile imageAUTHOR

      Daddy Paul 

      9 years ago from Michigan

      To answer your question index funds do outperform 80 of all large cap funds. That said 20% outperform the index. I want to invest in those 20%.

      If you are investing in an S&P500 index fund to mimic a target fund you will need to put a percentage based on your age into a total bond fund. In that case you will have an approximation of a target retirement fund. I believe you will beat the target funds 9 out of 10 times. I think low cost index fund can be a wise choice.

      What do I recommend? Please visit my 2010 portfolio hub. I am tracking the results on my blog. The 2010 portfolio has outperformed the S&P 500 every time I have checked this year. This portfolio is 20 percent bonds so it carries less risk than the S&P 500 index.

    • profile image

      MFO 

      9 years ago

      "By selecting the best mutual funds an investor can far outperform a target retirement fund." In regards to this statement, I recently read that almost all index funds out perform actively managed mutual funds. Would it be more wise to invest an just an index fund such as the Vanguard S&P 500 Index fun?

    • profile image

      Darren 

      9 years ago

      You're right Daddy Paul. One can do much worse than choosing a target retirement fund, but one can also do better. If a person doesn't assess his or her own tolerance for risk, then by default they are being grouped into the same allocation with people of the same age in a target fund. This may not be a good thing if they have a different level of risk tolerance.

      I currently have my Roth IRA money in a target date fund. But when I have more money invested into it, I plan on switching to separate index funds, such as a U.S. stock market fund, international stock fund, bond fund, and TIPS. By learning a little bit about asset allocation and diversification, a person can improve the performance of his or her own portfolio as compared to a target retirement fund.

    • Daddy Paul profile imageAUTHOR

      Daddy Paul 

      9 years ago from Michigan

      "This same guy is an avid fisherman and he's got a couple of boats. He spends a lot of time caring for his rod and reel, tackle, and he spends time on the internet looking for new gadgets to help him find fish and new stuff to catch fish with. I told him basically, when you put that pole in the water you want to catch fish. If you don't take care of it, you probably won't catch any. The same rule applies to money. I want my money to grow and work for me. If I don't care of it, that won't happen. What I'm doing is exactly the same thing you are doing."

      I love it!

    • Springboard profile image

      Springboard 

      9 years ago from Wisconsin

      I agree entirely. I don't like handing my money over to so-called "experts." It just seems to me as good an idea as any, when it comes to money, to be actively engaged in every part of its management. A family member on my wife's side always accuses me of being too obsessed about money. "You don't need to spend so much time worrying about it," he would tell me.

      This same guy is an avid fisherman and he's got a couple of boats. He spends a lot of time caring for his rod and reel, tackle, and he spends time on the internet looking for new gadgets to help him find fish and new stuff to catch fish with. I told him basically, when you put that pole in the water you want to catch fish. If you don't take care of it, you probably won't catch any. The same rule applies to money. I want my money to grow and work for me. If I don't care of it, that won't happen. What I'm doing is exactly the same thing you are doing.

      You're looking for ways to catch more fish. I'm looking for ways to make more money.

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