Monday, July 27, 2009

Before You Fall for Those "Target-Date Funds"

Target-date funds are funds that allow investors to link their portfolios to a particular time frame – which typically is their expected retirement date. For example, let’s say you intend to retire in 2018 – you would choose a fund with the closest date. In this case, 2020.

This is how they are marketed: The “experts” have already built the “amazing” portfolio for you, and as your retirement date gets closer, the portfolio – supposedly – becomes more and more conservative, reducing the percentage of stocks to bonds and cash.

The Pension Protection Act of 2006 formally permitted employers to use these funds as the default investment option for employees who do not specify where they want to invest their retirement savings. I can therefore infer that Congress believes – or believed in 2006 – that these target date funds were a great idea. In fact, to some in the media, these funds are the long-awaited breakthrough for which investors have been waiting.

In February 2008, a Kiplinger article noted that target-date funds were “the best way to save. Critics are overthinking a sweet and simple concept.” The article claimed these funds “simplify long-term investing.”

On January 12, 2009, CNN Money’s expert, Walter Updegrave –who is also a senior editor with Money magazine – referred to these funds as “an excellent way…”

On June 19, 2009, John Waggoner’s article in USA Today was titled, “Don’t shy away from target-date funds.”

A recent MSN Money article on how readers can fix their 401(k)s contained this quote: “ If you want to keep your financial life simple, a target-date retirement fund can be a great choice.”
Congress, the media, and so-called financial experts spoke, and unsuspecting investors listened, as always. So far, investors have poured more than $150 billion of their retirement assets into these funds.

What Would Have Actually Happened – and DID Happen

A few months ago, Boston College’s Retirement Center ran scenarios that assumed investors had contributed 6 percent of their pay for 40 years, investing in target-date funds. They never touched the savings until retirement and had annuitized (converted the balance into a series of payments ) the resulting balance.

Before I tell you the shocking results, notice how this is the perfect scenario preached by our “expert” friends. Gee, finally people save money for 40 years straight without touching it – finally, that perfect long-term planning scenario, right?

Based on the above assumptions, those retiring in 1999 could replace 51 percent of their pre-retirement income, while those retiring in 2008, could replace only 28 percent.

Gaining Some Perspective

So let’s put this into perspective. What it means is that if you were making $50,000 per year, you could replace $25,500 if your 40 years were up in 1999. On the other hand, if you retired in 2008 – after 40 years of using target-date funds – you would have to magically figure out a way to live on $14,000 per year.

On June 24, 2009, The New York Times reported that in 2008, some 2010 target-date funds – which many investors thought would be invested safely by then because it's only a year or so away from the target date – lost 40 percent of their value. That was even more than the 38.5 percent plunge of the S&P 500. Among the 31 funds with 2010 target dates tracked by Morningstar, the average 2008 loss was nearly 25 percent!

I get angry – good anger, by the way – when unsuspecting investors get duped this way. Yes, duped. Before you think I’m crazy, put yourself in the shoes of someone who is retiring in 2010 (that’s next year, by the way) and lost 40 percent of their ENTIRE nest egg last year.

What makes it worse is that someone did not keep their end of the bargain to deliver exactly what they promised. They sold investors on the “excellence” of these funds because the necessary portfolio changes would occur to make them more conservative as they got closer to the target-dates. Right? According to Morningstar, the Oppenheimer Transition 2010A fund, which lost 41 percent last year, held "a mere" 65 percent of its assets in stocks for investors retiring next year. Are you kidding me? You see why I'm telling you that people are being scammed? Is it then a huge surprise that it lost 41 percent?

And what reason are the so-called experts giving frustrated investors to explain these monumental losses? The same old "focus on the long-term" nonsense. Here is the response of Oppenheimer’s spokeswoman, Jeaneen Pisarra:

They were designed to be long-term investments. One-year results are not a true
assessment of long-term performance.
So I guess it’s just too bad that you cannot retire? Hang in there for the “long term,” regardless of your age.

Does this make any sense to you? Why, then, are some so-called experts and writers describing these funds as the best, most excellent, and simplest strategy that investors should jump into with both feet? Sure would be nice if Kiplinger, the CNN Money expert, and the other “experts” could explain what I’m missing or overthinking.

My Solution

The only strategy that works, as far as I am concerned, in planning for retirement is common sense. Period! No matter what color it is, at the end of the day, a chameleon is a chameleon. You see, there are certain fundamental truths that can never be changed, not even by Congress or the smartest of the so-called- financial gurus. Investing your money directly in the stock market is a pure gamble – nothing can or will ever change that.

Now suddenly, Congress, the SEC, and the Labor Department are beginning to cry “Foul!” The answer is not additional oversight. But I do wonder what Kiplinger, the CNN Money expert, and the others would say now? I do think we need a boatload of common sense in retirement planning.

How about this?

Imagine where these investors would be right now if their investments had NOT lost any value last year, and instead, their accounts had earned 5 percent interest! Yes, while the target-date funds lost 40 percent or more, their investments earned gains. And imagine if, when the markets recover, these investors' indirectly linked investment accounts were credited a higher interest rate – based on an index – up to a cap of 15 percent, for example.

This is no dream. It's not only possible, it happens for our clients every day. Isn't this just plain old common sense?
Want to know how to join this growing group of smart investors who are keeping their money where it belongs - in their control? Call Laser Financial Group today at 301-949-4449 or visit them on the Web at

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