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5 Things the DOL Wants You to Know About TDFs – That You May Have Overlooked

Target-date funds continue to expand in usage and popularity – but there are some things the Labor Department wants you to know about TDFs that you may have overlooked.

When the Labor Department published its “Target Date Retirement Funds – Tips for ERISA Plan Fiduciaries" in 2013, I was pleased to see it, and to discover that it could be read [1. The key bullets outlined in the DOL tips are simple and straightforward – and to my eyes pretty much fiduciary common sense. They included suggestions/admonitions to: (1) establish a process for comparing and selecting TDFs; (2) establish a process for the periodic review of selected TDFs; (3) understand the fund’s investments – the allocation in different asset classes (stocks, bonds, cash), individual investments, and how these will change over time; (4) review the fund’s fees and investment expenses; (5) inquire about whether a custom or non-proprietary target date fund would be a better fit for your plan; (6) develop effective employee communications; (7) take advantage of available sources of information to evaluate the TDF and recommendations you received regarding the TDF selection; and (8) document the process. ] (and understood) in about 15 minutes.

But in preparation for a recent webcast on the topic, I took a fresh look at that document, and found some nuggets that I hadn’t really picked up on the first time around.

It’s Not Just About Fees and Performance

As part of a reminder about the importance of establishing a process for comparing and selecting TDFs, the Labor Department specifically references considering prospectus information, such as information about performance (investment returns) as well as investment fees and expenses.

However, in that same topic point, the agency says that plan fiduciaries should consider how well the TDF’s characteristics align with eligible employees’ ages and likely retirement dates, “as well as the possible significance of other characteristics of the participant population, such as participation in a traditional defined benefit pension plan offered by the employer, salary levels, turnover rates, contribution rates and withdrawal patterns.”

‘To’ Versus ‘Through’ Matters

Considering what can be some pretty significant outcome differences in glidepaths between “to” (those that build to a specific target retirement date) and “through” (those that assume a glidepath to death), I’ve always found it curious that the Labor Department’s tips don’t make more of what seems a pretty big structural difference in these offerings.

While the “to” and “through” focus is covered in “Target Fund Basics” in the piece, under the bullet regarding “understand the fund’s investments,” the Labor Department’s information sheet notes that “some funds keep a sizeable investment in more volatile assets, like stocks, even as they pass their ‘target’ retirement dates,” going on to explain that “these funds” are generally for employees who don’t expect to withdraw all of their 401(k) account savings immediately upon retirement, but would rather make periodic withdrawals over the span of their retirement years. That approach is contrasted with the “to” version that the Labor Department says are “concentrated in more conservative and less volatile investments at the target date, assuming that employees will want to cash out of the plan on the day they retire.”

But what’s key here is the closing sentence: “If the employees don’t understand the fund’s glide path assumptions when they invest, they may be surprised later if it turns out not to be a good fit for them.”


Higher Costs Can Be Justifiable

It should come as no surprise that the Labor Department’s tips include an admonition about the need to be attentive to the impact of fees on retirement savings, and the structural layering typically associated with TDFs that can imbed layers of fees as well.

However, rather than merely condemning options that carry higher fees, here the Labor Department notes that, “If the expense ratios of the individual component funds are substantially less than the overall TDF, you should ask what services and expenses make up the difference,” going on to note that added expenses may be for asset allocation, rebalancing and access to special investments that can smooth returns in uncertain markets that “may be worth it.”

Custom TDFs Could Be Viable Alternatives

The Labor Department tips note that “a ‘custom’ TDF may offer advantages to your plan participants by giving you the ability to incorporate the plan’s existing core funds in the TDF,” and that “nonproprietary TDFs could also offer advantages by including component funds that are managed by fund managers other than the TDF provider itself, thus diversifying participants’ exposure to one investment provider.” It does acknowledge that there are some “costs and administrative tasks involved in creating a custom or nonproprietary TDF, and they may not be right for every plan.”

This “tip” was actually pretty plainly spelled out in one of the headlines – and yet, I remember thinking at the time that this wouldn’t be a very popular approach for most. But times are changing, technology continues to advance, and for advisors looking to differentiate themselves in the development of what is likely to become the largest plan investment, custom TDFs would seem to be a more viable solution than ever.

You Might Have to ‘Break Up the Set’

A TDF is, of course, a plan investment, and like any plan investment, if it fails to pass muster, a plan fiduciary would certainly want to remedy that situation, including removing the fund if necessary. That said, TDFs are frequently, if not always, pitched (and I suspect bought) as a package. While each fund in the family is reviewed separately, and certainly should be, breaking up the set certainly carries with it a series of complicated consequences, not the least of which are participant communication issues and glide path compatibility. Not that those can’t be overcome – and not that those complications would be deemed sufficient to retain an inappropriate investment on the plan menu – but it doesn’t take much imagination to think about the heartburn that might cause a plan sponsor.

However, as the Labor Department’s tips remind us, should a TDF’s “investment strategy or management team changes significantly, or if the fund’s manager is not effectively carrying out the fund’s stated investment strategy, then it may be necessary to consider replacing the fund.” That’s right – “the” fund. Similarly, the Labor Department cautions that “if your plan’s objectives in offering a TDF change, you should consider replacing the fund.” Again, note the use of the singular, not the plural.

Finally, one item not included in the piece – but arguably one that applies to every fiduciary situation – is that if you lack the requisite expertise to make the decisions as the prudent expert the law requires, you should engage the services of someone who has that expertise.

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