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A Guide Path for Your Glide Path(s)

Target Date Funds

A recent report—and a new wave of litigation—reminds us that all target-date funds are not designed the same. 

We all know that target-date funds are different, even if their names sometimes suggest otherwise.  Different management teams both set and monitor asset allocations—allocations that can vary widely with regard to the type and quantity of underlying assets. Fees can certainly be different, and some favor a reliance on passive investing versus an active engagement. But the difference that can often account for many of the other differences is the glide path, and more specifically the glide path’s “goal”—and here I am referring to the difference between funds that opt for a “to” retirement versus a “through” retirement focus.  

Now, admittedly it’s a “target date” fund, not necessarily a retirement date fund—and indeed if those were once upon a time considered one and the same, that’s apparently no longer the case. Indeed, and as a recent stream of litigation reminds us, the largest target-date fund providers these days are nearly all in what we call “through” retirement date funds, meaning that their glidepath is designed to carry you past the traditional retirement date “through” to the end of your life.

That’s not an illogical approach—after all, once you get to 65, your odds of making it to 85 (or beyond) are surprisingly good, and two decades is a lifetime[i] (and then some) when it comes to investment time horizons. Indeed, and without question, target-date funds have been a godsend for millions and millions of individuals who are time-pressed and lacking in investment expertise. Let’s face it, even those who have a fair degree of investment acumen find it challenging to keep up with the demands of personal portfolio management alongside the demands of a daily schedule. 

That said, a recent Morningstar whitepaper cautioned (in its title, helpfully) “Plan Sponsors May Not Always Consider Participants’ Behavior or Needs When Selecting Target-Date Glide Paths.” That paper cautioned that “through” glidepaths generally include around 13 percentage points more in equity at age 65 than their peers invested in “to” glide paths, as the average “through” series holds 46% in stocks versus just 33% for the average “to” series. That makes them riskier (or at least more volatile), and potentially riskier than those defaulted into those options may know—or desire.

Therein lies the rub—the Morningstar paper also reminds us that nearly a decade ago the Labor Department provided some "Tips for ERISA Fiduciariesregarding target-date funds. Tips that included the importance of “Establish[ing] a process for comparing and selecting TDFs,” under which the Labor Department suggested that plan fiduciaries “… should consider how well the TDF’s characteristics align with eligible employees’ ages and likely retirement dates. It also may be helpful for plan fiduciaries to discuss with their prospective TDF providers 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.”

Considering the variety of workforce demographics, and the relatively small number of target-date providers garnering the majority of money flowing into TDFs, it seems unlikely that many plan sponsors have yet really focused on the Labor Department’s tips, specifically with regard to questions of demographic alignment with the TDF glidepaths. For those who haven’t, it’s certainly worth a (re)consideration. 

And while you’re at it, it might be a good idea to make sure that it’s aligned with the communication and education to the participants who’ve been placed upon them.


[i] More cynically perhaps, one can understand and appreciate the interests of those designing the glidepaths in assuming that those invested there would choose to continue to retain that investment expertise, rather than cycle it down and reinvest in a completely different asset class.