Some people think target-date funds are too conservative, but lousy investors might need to be saved from themselves.
Question: I’m 28 and I struggle with how to allocate my 401(k) contributions among different types of investments. The target-date retirement funds in my plan would have someone my age invest 10% of their portfolio in bonds and the rest in various large- and small-cap index funds. But I think someone my age is better off focusing mostly on growth funds as well as foreign and emerging market funds. Seems to me that if I take the target-fund approach, I’ll be giving up a lot of potential return and money. What do you think? —Raymond Longshore, Gainesville, Florida
Answer: I think you’re a perfect example of someone who’s a lousy candidate for a target-date retirement fund and who ought to invest on his own.
Wait a minute. On second thought, you may be a perfect example of someone who really should be using a target-date fund instead of creating your own investment strategy.
I understand that on the face of it, that assessment sounds absurd. After all, you can’t be two diametrically opposed things at once. So let me explain my reasoning, starting with why I think you’re a lousy candidate for a target-date fund.
One of the big advantages of a target fund is that it frees you from having to make investment decisions on your own. You select a target fund with a date that roughly corresponds to the year you plan to retire - 2010, 2020, 2030, whatever - and you get a completely diversified portfolio of stocks and bonds. It’s a no-brainer way to invest. In order to provide that simplicity, the fund sets a stocks-bond allocation that it deems appropriate for someone of a given age.
Although not all target funds give you the same mix of stocks and bonds, most target funds designed for someone of your tender age would have a portfolio of roughly 85% to 90% in stocks and the rest in bonds. As you get older, that mix would gradually shift more toward bonds.
But the very things that make target-funds attractive - simplicity and a ready-made asset mix based on age - can also be drawbacks in some cases. Clearly, not everyone the same age has the same risk tolerance or wants to pursue the same investment strategy. You, for example, appear willing to take more risk by devoting more of your portfolio to stocks and by tilting your mix more toward volatile growth and emerging markets stocks.
For someone like you, investing in a target-date fund would be a bit like buying an off-the-rack suit when what you really want is a custom fit. So given your strong feelings about investing and the fact that your idea of how your money should be invested conflicts with what a target-fund would do, it would seem pretty clear that a target fund isn’t the way to go and you should create a portfolio on your own.
Okay, so given all that, how can I also say that maybe you ought to go with a target fund?
Well, as much as I admire your eagerness to take control of your investing strategy and create your own custom-made suit, I have my doubts about how good a tailor you are. Specifically, I worry that left to your own devices, you might sabotage yourself.
For example, you say you want an all- or virtually all-stock portfolio. Fine. I remember that “all stocks all the time” was the way to go back in the nifty ‘90s when stocks were churning out near 20% annualized gains.
But even many of the most gung-ho stock investors lost their nerve and bailed out when the boom turned to bust. Maybe you feel that won’t be the case for you since you’ve already seen the stock market drop a good 20% from last October’s highs. But what you have to ask yourself is how you would feel if stocks dropped that much again, and then even more. In the last bear market, the Standard & Poor’s 500 index fell almost 50%. I’m not making a prediction that stocks will implode like that again. But if you’re going to put all your money in equities, you should be aware of the potential downside.
And in fact, your downside could be even steeper since you plan to concentrate on growth stocks, which are more volatile than value-oriented ones. That’s not to say that growth shares can’t deliver a very impressive long-term return if you hang in through the ups and downs. But value stocks are no slouches either. Indeed, quite a bit of academic research, particularly the work of the University of Chicago’s Eugene Fama and Dartmouth’s Kenneth French, makes a convincing case that value, not growth, delivers the best returns over long stretches.
But let’s not get into a value vs. growth debate. Suffice it to say that growth and value shares typically go through cycles with one dominating for a number of years and then the other taking the lead. By investing in both value and growth shares, your portfolio will be more stable.
As for foreign and emerging markets, I’m all for making them a part of the mix (which, by the way, many target-funds do, in moderation). But you don’t want to overdo it there either, especially with emerging market stocks, which alternate explosive gains (up 71% in 1999) with devastating setbacks (down 37% over the next three years).
The portfolio you envision might do very well over the long term. But it could also get whacked pretty hard along the way. And if it gets hit hard enough, you may very well be tempted to abandon your plan and sell at the worst possible time. Oh, I know many investors say they won’t. But trust me, when stock prices are in freefall and all the talking heads on TV are shouting about what a bloodbath the market is, even the most steely nerved investors eventually cave.
Which brings me to why I think you might be just the sort of person who should do a target-date fund. They give us a broadly diversified portfolio instead of the more unwieldy version, overweighted in some asset classes and underweighted in others, that some of us might put together on our own. A less diversified portfolio can hit the jackpot if everything goes right. But it can tank if things don’t. Generally, I think investors are better off diversifying than making concentrated bets.
Target funds also provide a disciplined strategy that unfolds on its own. I think that’s good because it makes us less apt to tinker constantly or, even worse, dramatically overhaul our portfolios in response to the markets ups and downs.
In short, target funds can protect us from ourselves and our tendency to make rash and self-defeating moves when investing.
Ultimately, you’ll have to decide whether to proceed with the portfolio you’ve outlined. But given the choice between what you’ve described and a target fund, I would go with the target fund.
But there is another way. You can invest on your own but build a less extreme portfolio. Maybe throw in a small dollop of bonds. And instead of limiting yourself to growth stocks, include some value shares. As for foreign stocks, people can disagree on what’s appropriate for U.S. investors. But I think 20% to 30% is a reasonable level, and I’d devote only a small portion of that stake to emerging market funds.
Will you be leaving money on the table by diversifying more? Very possibly. But you’ll also have a portfolio that will deliver solid but more consistent returns during your career and is less likely to blow up. Which is just what you want when it comes to the money you’ll be depending on for retirement.