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Is Your Target-Date Fund on Target?

Morningstar's Christine Benz on addressing shortcomings and recognizing deal-breakers among target-date offerings.

Rachel Haig: I'm Rachel Haig for Morningstar.com. Target date funds can be a really easy way to diversify your portfolio and access professional management at a relatively low cost. However there are important considerations when you're deciding whether to invest in a target-date fund.

Here with me today to discuss those and how you know if you should avoid your target date fund is Morningstar's director of personal finance, Christine Benz. Thanks for joining me Christine.

Christine Benz: Rachel, great to be here.

Haig: So, target date funds are supposed to be a one-shot diversification, but not all of them access different areas of the market in the same way. How do you know if your target date fund is a good way to diversify or if it has some shortcomings?

Benz: Well, most of them will have some shortcomings so not all of these funds, or most of these funds, do not cover all the major asset classes. So it's very common to see that target date fund that has no explicit inflation protection, for example, no TIPS fund, no commodities, no nothing. In that case, that's not a deal-breaker, in my view. You can easily augment the target-date fund with an IRA that includes commodities or TIPS. So I wouldn't get too concerned if I saw a short fall in a category like that.

What you want to be on the lookout for is that you're essentially putting all your eggs in one basket, so the firm needs to be decent at least at all of the major asset classes. So, for example, if you look at some of the underlying fixed-income holdings and see that this is a shop that really doesn't do fixed-income well, that's a concern, and that will be an increasing concern as you hold the target-date fund and it includes more and more fixed income.

So you want to try to get a sense of how the firm is at managing within domestic equity, international equity, and fixed income. Make sure at least it has some baseline competency within those areas before you invest a lot of money in a target-date fund.

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Haig: What about expense ratios? I know they vary a lot especially in target-date funds. There are some as low as just 0.2% and they go all the way up to about 1.8%. How much is too much in terms of cost?

Benz: It's a great question, and you're right, there is a broad disparity, and some of these funds are bundling in administrative costs for putting the whole thing together, or for administering the plan. So you will see a broad range. I think for simplicity sake, it helps to set the bar at about 1% all in costs for a target date fund. If you see expenses higher than that, that's a pretty big red flag that you've got a costly plan. Just for comparison sake, Fidelity, which has some of the largest funds, prices its target date funds kind of at the realm of 55 basis points up to 75 basis points. So that's just kind of a ballpark view of where some of the bigger funds are priced currently. If you're much higher than that, that's a red flag.

Haig: Looking at the underlying funds that the target date series invest in, are there any red flags there that you should watch out for?

Benz: Well one thing that we've seen--and I'm happy to say that we're seeing less of this--but when target-date funds were initially launched, what we saw is that sometimes fund companies were stuffing in funds that weren't particularly attractive in their own right. Maybe they were looking to gather assets in those funds, but they weren't necessarily the firm's best offerings.

So when you look across the holdings of a target-date fund, and that's an important part of the analysis, you want to make sure that the holdings are indeed representative of the best of what the firm has to offer. It shouldn't be a basket of also-rans.

You also want to be on the lookout for overly defuse portfolios, so do they have too many holdings and maybe that's watering down the contributions of the really good funds. That's something that we've seen and that's been a criticism of our analysts in terms of Fidelity's Freedom lineup, for example.

We think that they're certainly serviceable, low cost, target date funds, but we would like to see them do a little pruning and put more of the assets in Fidelity's high-conviction names.

Haig: Well thanks for helping us identify the target-date losers.

Benz: Thanks, Rachel.

Haig: For Morningstar.com, I'm Rachel Haig.