The Color of Money: When Target-Date Funds Miss the Mark

By Michelle Singletary
Sunday, July 26, 2009

As dark as this recession has been, there's been an upside in that it has exposed myriad problems in the investing industry.

Take, for example, "target date" investment funds, which were created to help investors achieve the right mix of asset classes.

I'm a fan of the funds because they allocate your money among various asset classes and automatically shift from riskier investments to more conservative ones as you reach a certain target, such as retirement.

At the end of 2008, defined-contribution plans such as 401(k)s held $109 billion in target-date mutual funds, according to the Investment Company Institute.

Think of target-date funds, also called life-cycle funds, as operating like the "set it and forget it" machines that allow you to roast a chicken with little effort. The idea is that you don't have to closely monitor your investment account because the asset allocation and rebalancing are done for you. It's why the Labor Department endorsed the funds, allowing them to be a default selection in 401(k) plans.

But the recession and the resulting downturn in the stock market have illuminated problems with target-date funds, including how people perceive them.

The Senate's Special Committee on Aging held a hearing in February in part to discuss target-date funds within 401(k) plans. A committee investigation of funds designed for people planning to retire in 2010 found a broad variety of stock exposure -- and losses -- even though the funds had the same target date.

Such disparities worry the Labor Department's Employee Benefits Security Administration and the Securities and Exchange Commission. The two agencies held a hearing last month to discuss concerns about how target funds are managed and marketed.

"We have serious concerns that these funds are fundamentally misleading to investors because they are allowed to be managed in ways that are inconsistent with reasonable expectations that are created by the titles in the use of the names," testified Marilyn Capelli Dimitroff, chairman of the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards.

The average loss in 2008 among 31 funds with a 2010 target date was almost 25 percent. Returns ranged from minus 3.6 percent to minus 41 percent, SEC Chairman Mary L. Schapiro said at the hearing.

"These varying results should cause all of us to pause and consider whether regulatory changes, industry reforms or other revisions are needed with respect to target-date funds," Schapiro said. "Of all of the issues that the SEC is examining at the moment, our review of target-date funds is one that may most directly affect everyday Americans seeking to access our securities markets to help build a better life, and a greater sense of financial security, for themselves and their families."

There's no question that federal regulatory agencies owe us an examination of target-date funds. Have the hearings. But please, oh, please, if regulation is necessary, make sure it benefits the average investor.

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