The Problem with Target Date Funds

Yesterday’s New York Times had an article about the simmering controversy over target funds headlined Target-Date Mutual Funds May Miss Their Mark. (Get it? It’s a pun.)Toddler Cart Crop - Remi  Jouan

Target date funds have been around for a long time. They are a sub-species of asset allocation funds, mutual funds that, in effect, own other mutual funds in order to create a diversified one-stop-shop for the investor either too busy or too intimidated to pick his own. I’m not a big fan. I think you can do better making your own asset allocations, but that has little to do with the current round of hand wringing in Washington.

To understand what has caused the present consternation, you have to go back a few years.

There has always been the problem that too many workers fail to take advantage of the spiffy 401k plans offered to them. One approach to this problem is to understand it as a symptom of a larger tragedy that needs addressing, the fact that so many of us are in dire need of a better understanding of personal finance.

Another approach would be to ignore the big picture and harness the laziness and intimidation induced inertia of the American worker to get the outcome you want. Just make participating in the 401k plan the default, i.e. new employees have to fill out a form not to participate. Guess which path our government chose.

And for a while this looked like a great success for what might be called Nanny State Lite, the idea that the government can help you help yourself in a subtle way that you will hardly notice and that will maintain the pretense that we think you are an adult.

Ah, but just setting aside a part of your paycheck in a 401k isn’t enough. That money has to be invested. Traditionally, the default investment for 401ks was a money market fund, a.k.a. cash. And that made good sense. Everything else is risky and could lose money. Who wants to answer to a worker who lost some of his savings on something you picked for him, even if you meant well?

But if you are invested in cash, you can’t participate in the fabulous returns available from the stock market. So Nanny, who knows what’s best for you, changed the rules in 2006 to allow employers to set a target date fund as the default for 401ks.

You can guess the rest of the story. Everything went swimmingly until 2008, when those target date funds went down rather a lot and the kids started to resent Nanny’s help. Then Nanny, to paraphrase Casablanca, became simply shocked to discover that gambling was taking place in the target date funds.

From the Times:

Mary L. Schapiro, the chairman of the S.E.C., is now questioning whether fund companies misled investors about the risks associated with target-date funds, a concern the mutual fund industry says is unjustified.

The mutual fund industry is right. The composition of a target date fund and the risks involved is far from secret. It’s in the fund literature, on the website, and everywhere else a person who wanted to know such things might think to look. The problem being that the investors the SEC is concerned about are those lazy kids on 401k autopilot who would never look and probably wouldn’t have understood what they found if they did.

In hindsight, Nanny didn’t think this one all the way through.

Data collected by the S.E.C. shows that target-date funds vary widely in terms of their investment risks, even when they use similar target years or names. Even though federal officials put a stamp of approval on target-date funds, there are no clear standards about how they should work.

And, of course, this has always been the case. Two funds with "2025" in their names may have only their names in common, just as two "growth stock" funds may not own a single stock in common. The relatively obvious implication of this being that allowing target date funds to be designated as the default investment in a 401k is nearly an open-ended invitation to the fund manager and employer to take as much risk as they see fit. In giving a free pass to target date funds, Congress essentially made a specific exception for something that was itself undefined. Even by Congressional standards that’s inexplicable.

Nanny, needless to say, is in no hurry to take responsibility for this mess. The SEC is considering banning the use of dates in fund names. Senator Herb Kohl, Democrat of Wisconsin, has suggested standardizing the asset composition of the funds. And there is the usual hot air about fees and disclosure.

The core truth is simple. Nanny decided that taking some risk made more sense for her charges than investing in cash. And as risks taken sometimes do, it turned out badly. The final irony is that Nanny was broadly right. Details  of implementation aside, investing for retirement higher up on the risk-return curve than a money market fund was the right move and still is.

But it begs the question of whether Nanny should be making these decisions at all. Rigging the system to get the outcome we want is nice, but it is no substitute for addressing the problem that caused the undesirable outcome to begin with.

[Photo Remi Jouan]

No Comments

  • By Adam, June 25, 2009 @ 1:42 pm

    It is an interesting topic, but why are you trying to paint this as a consequence of big-government? It seems like mutual fund companies saw an opportunity to get a bigger slice (they make more from these accounts than money market funds, no?), lobbied for this rule change while nobody was looking and when it didn’t seem to matter much, and got it through. More to the point, it isn’t “Nanny making these decisions” – people aren’t having their money locked up into these things, unable to allocate it differently, against their will right? So people have been dumb with their money before and continue to be dumb with it. One could make the argument that this calls for more Nanny-statism (not that that’s what I believe).

  • By ObliviousInvestor, June 25, 2009 @ 2:37 pm

    So what, then, is your proposal for the “lazy kids on 401k autopilot who would never look and probably wouldn’t have understood what they found if they did”?

    Target date funds, as currently implemented, have many problems. No argument there.

    I still think that target date funds (with proper implementation) have the potential to do a world of good. Even–or especially–when implemented as a default option, in a default-enrollment 401k plan.

    Call me a pessimist if you want, but I don’t see investor education as a sufficient answer.

  • By ryan, June 25, 2009 @ 3:06 pm

    I agree with Oblivious Investor.

  • By Dan, June 25, 2009 @ 3:09 pm

    You make a lot of good points. But I think blaming the government is taking the easy way out. The government merely took (pretty basic) steps to move people in a direction that is universally accepted that they need to move.

    Forget about the Nanny State, it’s very much in the government’s interest to get people saving, by any means necessary. People who aren’t engaged in their own financial well-being become burdens to their fellow taxpayers when they’re old enough to realize they haven’t saved enough and need the government’s help. So those of us who manage our finances with a degree of confidence can all sit around complaining about those people who don’t, but that doesn’t move them any closer to where they need to be. The government is at least trying to do that.

    So maybe things haven’t gone exactly according to plan so far. So what? It happens – especially on large-scale efforts with lots of moving parts. Target date funds and default 401(k) participation are relatively new concepts that hadn’t really been tested yet. Now they have. And while they haven’t come out looking good, that’s no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater. You make some adjustments, try to standardize these target funds a bit more, and give it another go.

    You make a good point about the underlying problem of personal finance education and people taking responsibility for their own finances. But to that I make two points in response:

    1. Incidentally, I read something a few months back that said that more personal finance education actually does little to improve peoples’ understanding of personal finance – obviously a counterintuitive finding that needs more exploration. (Sorry, I searched for it and can’t find it.) I don’t recall that “personal finance education” was defined so certainly there’s room for debate over methods, when/what to teach people, etc., but if on a broad level that’s true it poses a whole new set of challenges.

    2. I’m a personal finance geek who is deeply engaged in my financial situation. But investing is by far my weakest area. To truly understand investing and do it well is HARD. It’s difficult to understand and it can be ridiculously time consuming to evaluate companies and funds. I figure that if I struggle to be a good investor when I already manage my money better than 90% of the population, how the hell is the other 90% ever going to get good at it?

    What we’ve got now isn’t perfect. But it’s a step in the right direction.

  • By Rob Bennett, June 25, 2009 @ 3:26 pm

    investing for retirement higher up on the risk-return curve than a money market fund was the right move and still is.

    The reality is that, at the prices that applied from 1996 through 2008, the likely return from a money market fund was higher than the likely return from a stock fund (and the risk was of course much less).

    There are of course millions who got this wrong. That doesn’t make it okay.

    We are at a primitive level in our understanding of how stock investing works. We all need to stop pretending that we know more than we do and get about the business of learning what we don’t know.

    Real live people were hurt by having their money put at great risk by those who claimed to know better. And the mutual fund industry certainly played a role. It is the mutual fund industry that has been promoting Passive Investing for three decades now.


  • By Nonymo, June 25, 2009 @ 7:20 pm

    Please don’t say “begs the question” when you mean “raises the question.” Your use of the term is as appalling to linguists as Dave Ramsey’s financial advice is to you.

  • By Frank Curmudgeon, June 25, 2009 @ 10:19 pm

    Adam: It’s not so much that this is big government as cloddish government. Any casual observer could have seen in 2006 that there was a lot of variation in the allocations of target date funds and it doesn’t take a genius to see that if the market goes down a lot of unhappiness will ensue. The outrage that the SEC, the Labor Department, Congress, and the rest now have at the fund industry is simply a crass effort to distract from their own failings and the results of their own decisions.

    OI & Ryan: I think that default 401k investments should be in cash. I know that sounds nuts, but I am not comfortable with the government making a risky (even if appropriately risky) investment on a worker’s behalf. It just seems wrong to me. And investor education my not be itself sufficient, but it is necessary.

    Dan: No fair mentioning a great sounding bit of research (the effect of PF education) without a link. Please keep searching.

    Nonymo: No, I meant begs the question. The issue over what the government should chose as the default investment, and what its nature should be, begs the question, i.e. assumes the conclusion, that the government should be making that decision at all.

  • By My Journey, June 25, 2009 @ 10:24 pm

    I am with Frank on this one! This is just yet another example of the government moving without thinking of consequences and then you will have some Democrat (Barney Frank’s fat slobbering face comes to mind) come on CNBC at 745am telling us we can’t trust the investment companies and SUPRISE the gov’t will save us AGAIN.

  • By GPR, June 26, 2009 @ 12:37 am

    @My Journey: this is certainly not my blog, but I for one come here daily because the postings and conversations are intelligent and thought provoking. These are two fairly simple criteria, and yet you failed them both. May I suggest one of the many, many places on the web where your comments would fit in better?

  • By Norwegian, June 26, 2009 @ 4:21 am


    Take a look at my hedge fund
    It’s the only one I’ve got
    Not much of a hedge fund
    Never seem to yield a lot

    Buy a subprime across the water
    Like to own America?
    Oregon and California
    The bubble turned out to be true
    But theres not a lot I can do

    Could we avoid getting broke fast
    Ben B. dear, Ben B. dear
    Seems they did it in Texas
    Cause’ everyones a millionaire

    I’m a winner, I’m a sinner
    Do you want my CDO
    I’m a loser, so’s my broker
    I was tempted, I couldn’t say no
    But it turned out the high yield was low

    Na. na, na, na, natten na, natten na, na, na, na, na
    Na, na, na, na, natten na, natten na, na, na, na, na
    Na, na, naaaa, na, na, naaa, na, naaa, na, na

    Don’t you look at my hedge fund
    It’s the only one I got
    Not much of a hedge fund
    Madoff and his bloody plot

    Buy a subprime across the water
    Like to own America?
    Oregon and California
    The bubble turned out to be true
    But theres not a lot I can do

    Na. na, na, na, natten na, natten na, na, na, na, na
    Na, na, na, na, natten na, natten na, na, na, na, na
    Hey yam, hey yam, hey yam, hey yam,
    hey yam, hey yam, hey yam, hey yam
    Na, na, naaaa, na, na, naaa, na, naaa, na, na

    Enjoy singing this.

  • By Nonymo, June 26, 2009 @ 9:54 am

    Frank: You are correct. I apologize.

  • By Dan, June 26, 2009 @ 11:36 am


    I have spent way more time searching for this than I should, and so far I have disappointingly not found what I’m looking for. This link is the best I could do, although I don’t recall this being exactly it. I wish I could find it. My apologies.

  • By Frank Curmudgeon, June 26, 2009 @ 12:15 pm

    My congressman, Barney Frank, is not fat. A little chubby, maybe, but for a guy of his age he looks pretty good. Also, he’s really funny, which counts for a lot in my book.

  • By Jim Blankenship, CFP®, EA, June 26, 2009 @ 1:36 pm

    At the core @Frank is right on the money – we all need more education and products that can be easily understood (including the inherent risks). Absent these two items, we’ll always have problems with the majority either squandering opportunities for growth (by only investing in cash) or by taking unnecessary risks at inappropriate times.

    Keep up the good work, @Frank!


  • By mwarden, June 26, 2009 @ 1:41 pm

    “It is an interesting topic, but why are you trying to paint this as a consequence of big-government?”

    Because that’s what it is. Government made decisions that should be the responsibility of individuals, and some individuals now believe those decisions were wrong (because they lost money). I should be investing based on my risk aversion. That decision should not be made by bureaucrats in DC (who are not investment professionals and who are often “influenced” by special interests).

  • By mwarden, June 26, 2009 @ 1:48 pm

    “Forget about the Nanny State, it’s very much in the government’s interest to get people saving, by any means necessary.”

    What about depressed interest rates (low savings interest, cheap debt)? What about the encouragement to spend? What are you basing this on?

  • By maxwellthedog, June 26, 2009 @ 1:58 pm

    Actually, I think you can also argue that the failure of financial education (on the part of both individual investors and the government) continues with the questions from the Mary Schapiro and the NY times. Anyone buying a fund with an allocation to equities needs to understand that those equities can vary wildly in value. We have seen big index moves of -80% twice in the last 80 years, and more than -50% recently. Mary Schapiro acts as if she is surprised by this. The only people surprised are those who don’t know history or understand investing.

    I also agree with Frank that the default should be a money-market-like fund with a mandate to keep pace with inflation. Hell, create a new fund class, regulate it, and let private companies market them for their 401K plans. This has the dual benefit of 1) preventing people’s default option from being a risk they do not understand, and 2) focusing people on the fact that without real returns, the growth in your retirement savings will be most impacted by your ability to save during your working years.

    Which has the added benefit of being true for about 95% of the population.*

    *This number has not been verified.

  • By Joel, December 1, 2010 @ 10:43 am

    The company offering the retirement plan sets the default funds, not the government. You can always change your investment if the default fund isn’t to your liking.

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