Archives for April 27, 2015

Target Date Retirement Funds: Beating The Behavior Gap

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The general consensus behind target-date retirement funds is often “They’re okay… but here’s something better!”. Any all-in-one product will be imperfect. But I still like them on the whole and have written previously about how Vanguard’s target-date retirement funds are underrated. If you’re invested in them, this Bloomberg article and Morningstar data should make you feel even better about it.

Most mutual fund investors actually do worse than market returns due to poor behavior, termed the “behavior gap“:

But target-date funds have one big advantage over other kinds of mutual funds, the data show. The average mutual fund has a flaw, which is that the average investor hardly ever does as well as his or her funds. Investors tend to jump in and out of funds at the wrong time. They buy high, choosing funds only after they’ve done well. And they sell low, dumping underperforming funds just as they’re about to take off.

However, owners of target-date fund actually did better:


On average, target-date fund investors are doing 1.1 percent better per year than their funds. Investors in almost every other fund category lagged their funds over the past decade, including a -0.98 percent underperformance for U.S. equity funds and -1.3 percent for municipal bond funds.

The outperformance may be a temporary anomaly, but I do think there are unique features of these all-in-one funds (and their investors) that will persist:

  1. Self-selection. If you buy a target-date fund, you desire simplicity. You have a degree of humility. You don’t overestimate your skills as an investor, otherwise you’d buy something else.
  2. Optical illusions. If you own an all-in-one fund that holds both stocks and bonds together, you don’t have the problem of seeing one investment drop while the other rises. It’s all mixed together in one pot, so the impact is usually dulled. This is the benefit of buying a “balanced” fund.
  3. Automatic rebalancing. Anything that makes you look at your investments is an opportunity to make an emotionally-driven choice. Since these funds even rebalance their holdings for you automatically, you’re not even required to rebalance, which can be hard to do. Right now, a portfolio would probably have to sell stocks and buy some bonds while the media keeps talking about rising rates.
  4. Tweaking is difficult. If you have one stock fund and one bond fund, it’s very easy to buy little more of one or a little less of the other. With an all-in-one fund, it’s harder to tweak your mix.

So you don’t have to do anything, and if you want to do something besides just buy more, it’s a pain. All this means less trading, which over the long run is a good thing.

So don’t be ashamed of buying a diversified, low-cost Target Date fund like Vanguard 20XX or Fidelity Freedom *Index* 20XX funds. The article ends with a good reminder that costs still matter. Don’t overpay for one of these funds either, and maybe even raise a little stink if you are being asked to.

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