Freedom From Choice?

By Nevin Adams, EBRI



You may remember little else about the 1989 film “Field of Dreams,” but odds are you have invoked a version of what is likely its most famous quote, “If you build it, they will come.”

Unfortunately, for many, building retirement savings is more complicated than constructing a baseball diamond in the middle of an Iowa cornfield. Most experts will tell you that the most important decision in retirement saving is deciding how much to save, not how those savings will be invested―and yet, for years, much of the education and discussion about retirement saving has been focused on investing.

Enter the target-date fund (TDF), a type of investment fund apportioned according to what investment professionals deem to be an appropriate age-based blend of stocks, bonds, and other asset classes for an individual within a particular target-date of his or her retirement. Perhaps more importantly, that apportioning is automatically rebalanced over time, as the target date approaches, becoming less focused on growth and more focused on income over time. It’s an approach to which individuals and plan sponsors alike have come to embrace with little of the reluctance that often accompanies new retirement plan designs; one that runs counter to decades of expanding retirement plan menus and education designed to help participants make better use of those choices.

Consider that 72  percent of the more than 64,000 401(k) plans in the EBRI/401(k) database, included target-date funds in their investment lineup at year-end 2011,¹ and that nearly 4 in 10 of the nearly 24 million participants in that database held target-date funds.² That’s sharply higher than 2006, the year that the Pension Protection Act of 2006 included target-date funds in its definition of qualified default investment alternatives (QDIA), when about 57 percent of plans included those offerings on their menus, and fewer than  1 in 5 participants held them in their account(s). Perhaps more significantly, at year-end 2011, 51 percent of participants in their 20s held target-date funds, compared with 32 percent of participants in their 60s.

Recently hired participants―those more likely to be automatically enrolled in their employment-based 401(k), and to have their savings automatically invested in a QDIA (frequently a target-date fund), were, not surprisingly, more likely to hold target-date funds than those with more years on the job: At year-end 2011, 51 percent of participants with two or fewer years of tenure held target-date funds, compared with 37 percent of participants with more than five to 10 years.

In fact, an August 2011 EBRI Issue Brief noted that, among consistent participants in the EBRI/ICI database who were identified as auto-enrollees in 2007, 97.2 percent were still using TDFs in 2008, and 95.7 percent used them in 2008 and 2009. Even among those not identified as auto-enrollees, just over 90 percent continued to use them from 2007‒2009 (see “Target-Date Fund Use in 401(k) Plans and the Persistence of Their Use, 2007‒2009,” online here).

Now, one can find fault with the target-date design: There are different views on what is an “appropriate” asset allocation at a particular point in time; discrete perspectives as to what asset classes belong in the mix; notions that individuals aren’t well-served by a mix that disregards individual risk tolerances; arguments over the definition of a TDF “glide path” as the investments automatically rebalance over time; and even disagreement as to whether the fund’s target-date is an end-point, or simply a milepost along the investment cycle. That said, and as the EBRI/ICI data show, target-date funds, as well as their older counterparts, the lifecycle (risk-based) and balanced fund(s), have become fixtures on the defined contribution investment menu. For a large and growing number of individuals, these “all-in-one” target-date funds, monitored by plan fiduciaries and those that guide them, are likely to be an important aspect of building their retirement future.

Of course, the future they’ll build will likely be better if those investments are properly used, carefully monitored, better understood―and funded by the appropriate amount of savings.

¹ See “401(k) Plan Asset Allocation, Account Balances, and Loan Activity in 2011,” online here.

² In addition, 20 percent of the participants in the EBRI/ICI 401(k) database held non–target-date balanced funds, and 3 percent held both target-date and non-target-date balanced funds at year-end 2011.

About ebriorg
President and CEO, EBRI

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