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5 Things You Should Know About Target-Date Funds

In a remarkably short period of time, target-date funds have become an integral component of the typical 401(k) menu, and a growing share of 401(k) plan assets — particularly those of newly hired 401(k) plan participants — are being directed to TDFs.

Whether you are a plan fiduciary evaluating the TDF option(s) on your plan menu — or a 401(k) plan participant being defaulted into a TDF option — here are five questions to which you should know the answers about your TDF investment.

1. What is the ‘appropriate’ asset allocation?

This is the million-dollar question for target-date funds. At a high level, this is no more complicated than deciding what is the right mix of stocks and bonds, international and domestic, alternative investments and/or cash for investors at every stage of their investing life — or than picking the firm(s) that you trust to know what that right mix is.

2. How much of what is on your glide path?

The “glide path” sounds like a complicated concept, but it is actually nothing more than how the shifts in asset allocation take place over time. It is the path that these investments take your money on throughout your investing life. Still, for some funds — particularly newer, smaller funds — the asset-allocation strategies outlined in the fund prospectus or fact sheet may still be “aspirational,” may not yet incorporate all the specific strategies that the fund manager has in mind for that time in the future when the funds achieve a certain critical mass. You need to know what the targets are — and know if those targets are part of the current strategy.

3. Are the funds composed of proprietary offerings, or are they ‘open architecture’?

The “debate” over the relative advantages of open architecture versus proprietary offerings has long been part of retirement plan administration choices, and it is part of the target-date decision as well.

Those advocating the benefits of open architecture generally tout the ability to pick “best of breed” investment solutions (while readily being able to dump those that fall short), backed by the notion that no one firm can possibly be that best choice across every asset class. Those pushing proprietary choices take issue with that latter point, while pointing to the benefits of their intimate knowledge of their own product set — not to mention the relative cost efficiencies of a proprietary product. There is no one single right answer, but the determination should be part of your evaluation.

4. How much does it cost?

Target-date funds are often constructed as a fund comprised of other funds, and — particularly when a provider incorporates other funds in their offerings, they frequently charge some kind of fee for their expertise in putting together those other funds. This is a fee generally applied as some kind of basis-point charge in addition to the other, regular fees charged by the underlying funds. You will want to know what this charge is, if any, and consider it as part of the total cost of your selection. This fee is generally smaller (sometimes there is no extra charge) for proprietary-only offerings.

Beyond the aforementioned “wrapper” fee, TDFs — particularly mutual fund TDFs — will generally have all the same kinds of fees typically associated with retirement plan investments. Bear in mind that some of the fund allocations may include some relatively exotic asset classes — and those may carry higher expenses than you are accustomed to seeing. Additionally, you may find some retail share class funds included, even in institutional share class offerings. The bottom line: Keep an eye on the bottom line.

5. How should I measure ‘success’?

It wasn’t all that long ago that there were no benchmarks to speak of in this space (other than those constructed by the firms managing those funds). These days the passage of time, and the expansion of the market, have produced several credible benchmarks against which the performance of the funds can be evaluated.

But take note: The benchmarks can be as varied in their underlying philosophy and construction as are the funds themselves. That’s why it is important to first know what you believe about the approach, glide paths, and/or asset allocation before you pick the benchmark.

You may also want to check out the Employee Benefits Security Administration’s (EBSA) “Target Date Retirement Funds — Tips for ERISA Plan Fiduciaries” at