PODCAST: The Pros and Cons of Target Date Funds with Tony Drake
The simplicity of target date funds has made them popular, particularly among 401(k) savers. But investors may be paying a price.
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Links and resources mentioned in this episode:
- Inheriting an Annuity? Here’s a Little-Known Way to Stretch Its Tax Benefits
- Retirement Ready Radio Show (Tony Drake podcast)
- Is a Target Date Fund Right for You?
- ICI.org: Target Date Funds Remain Popular Investment in 401(k) Plans
- The Disturbing Conflicts of Interest in Target Date Funds
- FINRA Fund Analyzer
David Muhlbaum: The idea of an investment vehicle that you can put money into and then cash out for your retirement or to pay for your kid's college has long been appealing. Target date funds, which aim to fit that niche, have been growing in popularity. But set and forget, well, it has its pitfalls. Certified financial planner Tony Drake has a few cautions about target date funds. Also, we'll field some listener questions on Roth IRAs and annuities. All coming up on this episode of Your Money’s Worth. Stick around.
David Muhlbaum: Welcome to Your Money’s Worth. I'm Kiplinger.com Senior Online Editor David Muhlbaum, joined by my co-host, Senior Editor Sandy Block. How are you doing, Sandy?
Sandy Block: Doing great, David.
David Muhlbaum: Cool. So, we have gotten some emails, and we love listener mail – when it's nice. Now for the first one, I'm not going to use her name. Not only because it wasn't 100% clear from the email address, but also because the question they posed had real dollar values attached to it and maybe ... well, I'll call her Jane Doe. Maybe Jane wouldn't want us hashing over how much she has in her emergency fund in Roth IRA or how old she is, but we'll need those facts.
Sandy Block: I'm sure Jane will appreciate your discretion, and I sure would. So what does she want to know? Was this related to our chat with Ed Slott about IRAs?
David Muhlbaum: Yeah, bingo. Well, Jane said she liked it, but she wanted to know basically if she could use her Roth IRA as a savings account of sorts. A place to stash money she might need access to in the relatively near term.
Sandy Block: So we're talking about an emergency fund here?
David Muhlbaum: Sort of. Now, she said she already has $10,000 in a credit union savings account as her emergency fund, and she said she directs anything above that to a mutual fund portfolio, which sounds fine and well. But she, and I'm quoting here, "Didn't realize the benefits of Roth accounts until recently, and I only have about $4,000 in it."
Sandy Block: I don't understand how Ed Slott, who thinks everyone should have a Roth IRA, failed to reach her.
David Muhlbaum: Yeah, I know, right? Anyway, so I can only presume that the amount in her Roth IRA is relatively low relative to the other things. Not only because she only recently discovered the miracle of the Roth IRA, but also, as we've discussed, money going into a Roth is after tax. So if you're converting a conventional IRA into a Roth or even making contributions, you've got taxes to cover, and it's a good idea to do these conversions a bit at a time. Now we're guessing at Jane's strategy, but also again, that also seems fine and well.
Sandy Block: Right, and she may just not have converted anything. She might just be contributing and there's a limit on how much you can contribute every year. So what's her question?
David Muhlbaum: Right. Well, it seems rather specific, but since it illustrates how a Roth works for everyone, here goes. Basically, she wants to know she can take contributions and earnings from her Roth IRA out without any tax consequences. I thought this was noteworthy in part because when we talked with Ed Slott, we all went on about how the beauty of the Roth IRA is that money you earn in it won't be taxed ever.
Sandy Block: Which is true, but there are some caveats. How old did she say she is?
David Muhlbaum: 61. She said she's 61.
Sandy Block: She also said she'd only discovered the benefits of a Roth recently. How recently? Was she specific?
David Muhlbaum: Yeah. She said she'd had it more than five years.
Sandy Block: Okay, so it's no accident she said more than five. The reason I'm going all detective ... I love detective novels, I'm reading them right now, on these numbers is because of the fine print. Most people know you have to be over 59 and a half to take earnings out of a Roth IRA without penalty with some exceptions, but she's got that covered because she's 61. The other point is more subtle and has to do with what's called the five-year rule. Basically, you have to wait five years after, if you've opened a Roth, before you can take your earnings out tax-free, assuming you're over 59 and a half, but she's done that.
David Muhlbaum: So even if she puts in more money now, and that was part of her question, it's not like she has to wait five more years to expire on that, to take the earnings back out. She cleared five years. That's it. Done. One single deadline, not a rolling one?
Sandy Block: Right, and that's something that Ed Slott often points out, is that it is not ... The five-year doesn't start every time you contribute to a Roth. The five year starts when you open the Roth. So in Jane's example, yes, she could. She's cleared that barrier. She could put more money in and she could take it out tax-free, and we can talk about whether that's a good idea, but she could do it.
David Muhlbaum: Okay, Jane, I think we have your answer. But by the way, Sandy, shouldn't we be adding some kind of disclaimer here, I mean, that people should go and check with their financial planner or something? Because many of our guests get pretty wary about handing out advice, and maybe we shouldn't be quite so bold. I mean, the only certification I hold is wilderness first aid.
Sandy Block: Which is a good certification to have if you're in the woods and-
David Muhlbaum: If you're spouting blood, but yeah.
Sandy Block: Oh yeah, if you get attacked by ... If I get attacked by a bear, you're the first person I'm going to call. But yeah, I think she should talk to a planner. I guess my ... the other comment I would just make is we have recommended ... One thing is she can always take out the amount that she puts in. You can always take out your contributions tax-free, penalty free at any time. That's is going to be the bulk of the money that you have in IRA. So we have suggested in a pinch, a Roth does make a good source of emergency funds, but we don't recommend it as in practice because that's not really what a Roth is supposed to do. It's supposed to be for your retirement, and when you take money out, you're taking away the biggest advantage, which is you get years and years of tax-free growth. So I'll stop there, but that's just something a financial planner would probably tell her, too.
David Muhlbaum: Very well. Okay, so we had two more questions in, and these were about our very recent episode with Tim Steffen talking about the potential problems of inheriting assets. One was very short. It just said, "What about annuities?"
Sandy Block: Oh no, what about them?
David Muhlbaum: Yeah, exactly. They're complicated! Now with my super special internet skills, I could tell that this person was commenting from the transcript of our conversation with Tim. I knew it was about that episode. So I feel safe extrapolating a bit and guessing that the full question was, "Aren't annuities taxable to the person inheriting them?" And I'm guessing again, that they're probably talking about income tax.
Sandy Block: Right, and yes, it is possible to be on the hook for income taxes on an annuity you inherit as an heir. Now, like anything with annuities, it's complicated. It depends on a whole bunch of things like, are you a spouse? Are you someone else? Was the annuity in a tax deferred account? All that stuff.
David Muhlbaum: All right. So what's the worst-case scenario? How could you basically be on, "what about annuities?" How could it be bad?
Sandy Block: I think it would be ... I think, assuming that the annuity is in a tax deferred account, and I think that's the case with a lot of annuities, most annuities probably, and you inherited it and then you cashed it out, it would be the equivalent of inheriting an IRA and cashing that out. You would owe income tax on all of the earnings and potentially the principal, if that was also tax deferred. So the worst-case scenario is you inherit an annuity. You say, "Oh, boy." You cash it out, and then you get a very big tax bill.
David Muhlbaum: Okay. I see. Well, all right, dear writer. I hope you're not in that situation. I'm going to pop a link into our show notes by one of our Building Wealth contributors. His name is Ken Nuss, and he goes way deep into how heirs can minimize taxes on annuities. It's called an annuity stretch and well, I'm not going into it. You can read it. The last note was from Stan Hardy. He signed his name, so I'll use it. Thanks for listening, Stan, and we're sorry if we alarmed you.
Sandy Block: How did we alarm Stan?
David Muhlbaum: Okay, well, you remember how we went on about how the Secure Act means that heirs who aren't spouses now have to empty out an IRA in 10 years? They can't stretch it out for decades anymore.
Sandy Block: Yeah, we discussed that at length.
David Muhlbaum: Yeah, with Tim, but what we probably didn't make clear enough is that this only applies when it's for someone who has died on January 1st of 2020, or from that point on. It is not retroactive.
Sandy Block: That is right. The Secure Act annoyed enough estate planners as it was; retroactive would have been really unfair. So if you inherited an IRA before January 1st, 2020, the old rules apply. You can still stretch it out, take distributions based on your lifespan, your life expectancy and not worry about a big tax bill or worry about having to take it all out in 10 years.
David Muhlbaum: Got it. All right. Thanks for writing, Stan. We hope that clears things up. In our main segment, we'll talk to a financial planner about target date funds, their strengths, their weaknesses, and whether they're right for you.
The Pros and Cons of Target Date Funds with Tony Drake
David Muhlbaum: Welcome back to Your Money’s Worth. For our main segment today, we're going to dig into a popular investment option, target date funds. There's a good chance you might have some money in one of these, perhaps through a 401(k) plan or in a college savings account. Their simplicity is very appealing and that's a big reason for their rapid growth, particularly among younger investors. Joining us today to discuss them is Tony Drake, who is a certified financial planner from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He has contributed articles to Kiplinger's Building Wealth channel, and frankly, that's how we found him, although you may have heard him on all sorts of other media, including the live radio show about retirement he hosts on WTMJ AM 630. Of course, that's available online these days as a podcast. We'll put in a link. Thanks for joining us, Tony. You're clearly no stranger to headphones.
Tony Drake: Yeah. I feel like when I started in the industry, everything was face to face. Now it's Zooms and headphones and podcasts, and you have to be comfortable with it. That's for sure.
David Muhlbaum: Yeah. It's funny that Zoom has actually made a lot of people more comfortable with coming on and talking to us this way, as opposed to the old pick up the telephone and patch them in scenario. But on the other hand, I still am astonished sometimes that we have people who don't seem to own a set of headphones in the house. Anyway, Tony, before we get into exactly how target date funds work, I want to ask something kind of blunt. You run a team of advisors and you have a lot of clients. Do you ever recommend target date funds to them?
Tony Drake: Generally, when we're working with the client directly. Most of our clients are in retirement or rapidly approaching retirement, and we don't tend to use the funds in our portfolios directly. Occasionally, we're helping them maybe pick some funds in their own 401(k). Sometimes those are the best options, but in our own portfolios, we don't tend to use them. There can be some inefficiencies, but we oftentimes do in their 401(k)s.
David Muhlbaum: Got it. Okay. Yeah, I just wanted to touch on the idea. We're going to do cons and pros today, as you did in your piece for Kiplinger. So back to definitions, what is a target date fund?
Tony Drake: It's pretty simple. As you could imagine, we're in 2021 here, and imagine you're retiring in 30 years. You would pick a target date fund for 2050 or 2051, and that would get safer as you got closer to retirement. So it's going to be a little bit more aggressive now that we have a long,
30-year runway ahead of us. As we get closer, that fund manager should rebalance that so it gets safer and safer as we get closer to that target retirement date.
Sandy Block: So Tony, we certainly appreciate the simplicity of that idea, but already there's a big choice that people have to make, which is picking the date they expect to retire. I'm not all that young myself, and I really have no idea when I'm going to retire. So what if someone signs up for a target date fund, like you said, with a 30-year runway, and then they change their mind. They decide to retire early at 62 instead of 65, or maybe they decide I'm never going to retire. Can you pick a new date?
Tony Drake: Yeah, you certainly can rebalance your portfolios and pick a new date. I think that question is easy though, Sandy. Let's retire tomorrow, right and enjoy ourselves, right? But no, to your point, you bring up a great point that many of us, at least earlier in our working careers sometimes have no idea when we're going to retire. So as you get closer to that date, if you decide for some reason, you're going to retire five years earlier, you're going to extend it for 5 or 10 years, it's pretty easy to rebalance your 401(k) and pick a new target date fund that's closer to that retirement date that you're dreaming about.
David Muhlbaum: Generally, if that person were making those changes in a 401(k), for example, a traditional 401(k), they can move them around willy-nilly without tax consequences. They could-
Tony Drake: That's one of the beauties, right, of those retirement accounts. You can rebalance that, not incur any of the tax consequences until you start to take that money out in retirement. That's when we get the tax consequences.
David Muhlbaum: Got it. So target date funds date back to the early 1990s. I think you had 1994 in your article. I'm wondering why did it take that long for the idea to come around? It wasn't a change in law regulation. How did this even come up?
Tony Drake: Yeah, I think it's something as consumers got more involved, we had this really seismic shift, if you will, from pension plans to 401(k)s. That really changed the game for investors. Before, your employer was responsible to make those investment choices, and there's lots of testing. If they didn't invest right, they'd have to put more money in. Really that onus was on them to do it properly. When this 401(k) revolution happened in the United States, that burden now falls on the investors. So I think investors were always hungry for more and more options. Generally speaking, if we look at data, retail investors don't do quite as well on their 401(k)s if they don't have help. This was an idea that came along to just say, hey, here's a simple way that you can just pick that target date. A money manager is going to rebalance that over time so you're not stuck. Maybe one year from retirement, a big market correction happens and your portfolio drops more than you hoped.
David Muhlbaum: Yeah. The pension-
Sandy Block: Right-
David Muhlbaum: Sorry, Sandy. I was just going to say the pension plan analogy is very on point. The idea of essentially someone knows when you're going to need the money, and they are going to manage it over that term with the idea that you're going to need it then. As opposed to the more self-directed 401(k) investor, who's into funds and picking and choosing. But Sandy, you had a question.
Sandy Block: Well no, I was just going to comment that I remember early on in, when I first started investing in a 401(k), and you had a lot of choices, and it turned out that people didn't really like that very much, or they managed it badly. I can't remember how many of my colleagues, if we had 10 funds in our 401(k), they would just put one-tenth of their savings in each of those funds. So I think that target date funds solved that problem for a lot of people, because they didn't have to make a lot of choices. We dug into some numbers from the Investment Company Institute, which found that for 2018, which is the most recent year they studied, 27% of all assets were invested in target date funds, and more than half of 401(k) participants in the database held target date funds. That adds up to a lot of money, billions or trillions of dollars, right Tony?
Tony Drake: Huge amounts of money, right, and so many folks are utilizing these target date funds. I think they're a fantastic option for someone that's managing their own money and maybe doesn't really know what to do. I think you brought up a great point, Sandy. Just dividing it by one-tenth in all 10 of the funds isn't always the answer we want to do. Sometimes we see investors that will look back and say, "Well, which one did well last year? I'll put my money in that one." Well, we know the future doesn't always repeat the past, right? So these target date funds were really a great way that folks could do that. When we think a little bit about the huge boost they got around 2006, remember the Pension Protection Act was passed. Then 401(k) administrators had to offer auto enrollment and different investment alternatives. There were some more liability and responsibility that they were looking at the plan and making sure it was responsible. So you saw a big boost there, and to your point, lots and lots of dollars in these funds today.
David Muhlbaum: So yeah, that change in the law, I mean, it helped ... to some extent, it helped the plan providers because it gave them options and gave them some legal protection. I think it's an open question how much it helped the individual investor. I mean, Sandy used the word, the idea that the target date fund solved things. But as we're going to talk about, they created some problems of their own. We'll get into that. But I guess the net result of that was that a lot of people who weren't necessarily contributing to their retirement, well, now they were. Now they're doing something. They're auto-enrolled and putting some money away. I guess that's good from a macroeconomic perspective, but that doesn't mean that target date funds are right for everyone. So yeah, maybe let's get to those cons. What are the downsides of target date funds?
Tony Drake: Like any investment, we're going to have some pros and cons, right? There's things that work great and there's things we need to think about. The limitations on the target date funds is they're just not individualized to your scenario. It's that same investment pool, those same rebalances that happen at certain time periods till the end of the target date that happen for everybody. They treat every person who retired at a certain time period the same, and we know we're not all the same, right? We all have different income needs, certainly different lifestyles, resources. Big thing, we all have very different risk tolerances, right?
Maybe one of us is really aggressive and we want to see massive gains in good years. Those years like 2008 where the market cuts in half, we're not happy, but we know it's part of the big picture, and we'll ride it out. Where other people lose 20%, 25%, 30%, they panic. They sell it the worst point possible at the bottom. Then they're sitting there with their hands in their pockets, wondering when do I get back in? So if you want a more individualized plan, you really run into some limitations, because the target date funds just don't give you that option.
Sandy Block: But Tony, what about fees? Because these are something we're obsessed with it at Kiplinger. Now there's been an argument that fees for target date funds could maybe deserve to be somewhat higher because someone is trading the funds and stocks to change your allocations over time, or at least telling an algorithm to do so. But I guess we've seen that various fees vary between target date funds too, and I just wonder if this is something that investors should be concerned about.
Tony Drake: 100%. I mean, we know fees, especially over a 20, 30, 40 year working career can make a massive difference in the outcome of your portfolio. A great part, Sandy, there's so many options out there nowadays. We know some of the fund families have much lower internal costs than others. So making that part of your buying or your shopping process is really important. The great part, if we think back maybe 10 or 20 years ago, you had to sort through these prospectuses that were written by attorneys. They were difficult to read, maybe on purpose, right, and really hard to find out what you were paying. Nowadays, there's great resources. There's some tools at finra.org, Yahoo Finance, where you can type in the fund, really see exactly what the internal cost is, compare that to other similar funds. So really, in this information age, all that data is right at our fingertips. So we can really make much more educated choices when it comes to fees.
David Muhlbaum: So Tony, you've been a contributor to our Building Wealth channel. One piece that ran earlier this year was called The Disturbing Conflicts of Interest in Target Date Funds. Now that's a provocative title -- it was basically a short version of a study by three finance professors. And I'm going to link to that from the show notes because it's interesting … and quite long … and hard to boil down here today. But we were wondering if you'd heard about this. Here's what sounded like the bottom line to me, and I'm going to quote it: "Many investors in retirement accounts end up holding these target date funds without paying attention to the direct and indirect costs associated with them. This results in a cumulative return loss of 21% for an average investor holding the fund for 50 years."
Twenty-one percent, wow, okay, that's quite a haircut. So, why? And again, I'm trying to describe a huge, footnoted study in a couple of lines, but the authors contend that the fund families who run the target date funds, well, they take advantage of all cash coming into the target date funds to balance volatility within their family of underlying funds, basically juggling the money. Then there's the fact that a target date fund, inherently, it charges fees on top of whatever fees the underlying funds do. I get the feeling that these are known problems in the industry, but the nature of the situation is that the people who often end up in target date funds are the ones who ... they're not paying attention.
Tony Drake: Yeah. There's some pretty amazing studies out there that your retail investor, your person investing in a 401(k) tends to have very little idea what they're paying. That is one of our contentions with the target date funds. Their fees can be large when you start to stack those various internal fees from the funds they're using and the fund fees themselves. That takes a big bite out of your retirement long-term. We also find that some of them can be a little bit inefficient. Oftentimes, portfolios that are more individualized to your needs are going to take advantage of different sectors in the economy that might be doing better under different cyclical cycles or maybe different political regimes, if you will. These target date funds often don't take advantage of that, so they tend to under perform.
David Muhlbaum: Yeah, they seem like in some ways they're a blunt instrument. You used that metaphor going in about the runway of retirement, like reaching the runway. The metaphor I hear in target date funds too, is also the glide path, essentially again, using an airline thing or aircraft thing, flying into that ... flying this theoretical straight line into a smooth landing. But that's all kind of idealized and yeah, as you suggest, may not be the solution for everyone.
Sandy Block: Well, and the other thing Tony, I'd like to ask you about, and I remember this being an issue after the market crash in 2008, 2009, is you mentioned risk tolerance. I don't know if this has changed, but what we found then was that there were huge differences in the asset allocations of some of these different target date funds. Some people were very close to retirement and found out that they had a much higher allocation in equities in their target date funds than they were comfortable with. Is that still a situation, and is it something that people who invest in these funds should be aware of?
Tony Drake: Yeah, that's the limitation, right, I mean, I think for your retail investor that just wants to set it and forget it, doesn't want to think about it at all. I like your idea, David, of the blunt instrument. It can be a great blunt instrument to just at least have something that's rebalancing at some point throughout your decades of working if you just don't want to look at it. But a lot of investors, to your point, Sandy, do have different risk tolerances. Some of these bonds look at, hey, they have different philosophies, right? Just like any money manager, they're going to have a different philosophy on what you should be invested five years out from retirement, for example, and you want to make sure that your philosophy is aligned with that money manager.
Most investors aren't willing to do the research and to dig into that. That's where a good fiduciary advisor might be able to help really come up with a more customized portfolio. Today there's pretty incredible tools where I can have a family come in. They still have their money in the 401(k). Through all these great technologies, I can go and help them rebalance and make sure we're taking advantage of different opportunities. So sometimes that could be better, but if you're a self-trader, want to handle it yourself, they can be a great way to just set it and forget it.
David Muhlbaum: We've been talking about target date funds as a vehicle for retirement, but they're also a popular option in 529 plans, saving for college. For that, instead of picking a date for retirement, we're anticipating, we hope, that there's a year that our kid or kids will be going to college, and choosing a fund that will be stable, mostly cash when it's time to pay those tuition bills. I think there are situations where people who are otherwise more active investors, maybe with individual stocks and mutual funds in their portfolio, they just say, "Whatever. I hope the kid's going in 2024. I'll just stick that money in a target date fund." I know at least one person who fits that profile because it's me, so judge me. Was that a mistake?
Tony Drake: I don't know that it was mistake. Again, if you want to take that attitude that, maybe the kids will go to school sometime around 2024, might be a simple way to stick money into a fund, not have to think about it, not have to worry about it. Again, as we've been talking about it with the target date funds as it pertains to retirement, we want to watch those fees, right? Those can really stack up. We want to look for efficiencies in a portfolio and make sure that that's getting safer as those children get through high school and they're getting closer to needing that money. We may not want the equity exposure. As Sandy mentioned, in 2008, one fund may not have been as conservative as another and they took a lot bigger beating if they weren't invested properly.
David Muhlbaum: That raises a question also about the choices available within each 529 fund. There are a lot of 529 funds out there, but the funds that each of them offer and the families of funds that they offer can vary as well, so that really ... it adds a layer of complexity.
Tony Drake: It certainly can be complex. That's one of the things we want to look at, whether it's a 529, we run into the same issues with 401(k)s or 403(b)s or whatever type of retirement account you have. Some of them offer a lot ... wide range of funds and investment options, and you can really dive into the fees and the costs and make sure you're being efficient there. Some of them give us a pretty limited menu of choices and we're stuck with what we have. One of the philosophies probably behind in-service distributions, as we get closer to retirement, of course, that's the ability for a retiree to say I want to take some of my money out of my 401(k), put it into a self-directed IRA. So now the world is my oyster with as many different options. Now that might not make sense for everybody. Sometimes you're better off leaving in a 401(k). That's probably a more involved conversation, but lots of these prions, whether it's 529 or retirement accounts, some are just better when it comes to the menu of investment options than others.
Sandy Block: Tony, you raise a really interesting point and probably something we could do a whole ‘nother podcast on, which is the pros and cons of rolling over your 401(k) into an IRA. As you said, oftentimes, that does ... once you put money in an IRA, you are in control and you get many choices, but that's not always a good option for people. So I think that's something that we might've wanted to talk about later. But it sounds like what it really comes down to is know thyself. If you really just want to put your 401(k) on autopilot, a target date fund is a good idea for you. But it sounds to me like you shouldn't just assume that it's always the only option that you should explore.
Tony Drake: Great way to look at it. Knowing yourself is really the answer. If you're just going to not look at your investments and not pay attention, that could be a disaster if you're picking specific funds in certain sectors. So that target date fund can really help there. It reminds me, I'm going to age myself here. You guys probably remember that whole deal where you buy term and invest the difference. It was this whole philosophy on not buying whole life insurance or cash value insurance.
Sandy Block: Oh yeah.
Tony Drake: The problem is a lot of people bought term and didn't invest the difference. They spent the difference, right? So again, knowing yourself. If you're a diligent investor, you're going to look at your portfolio, make adjustments as the economy changes. Target date funds may be less efficient and not the best option, but they can be a really simple choice for folks that are just sticking money in every payroll.
David Muhlbaum: Well, thanks for joining us, Tony. We really appreciate your insights and we're going to listen more to your show too, because it sounds like we could chat some more.
Tony Drake: I appreciate it. Now I'll have three listeners, you guys and my mom.
David Muhlbaum: That will just about do it for this episode of Your Money’s Worth. If you like what you heard, please sign up for more at Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your content. When you do, please give us a rating and a review. If you've already subscribed, thanks. Please go back and add a rating or a review if you haven't already. To see the links we've mentioned in our show, along with other great Kiplinger content on the topics we've discussed, go to kiplinger.com/podcast. The episodes, transcripts and links are all in there by date. If you're still here because you want to give us a piece of your mind, you can stay connected with us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or by emailing us directly at email@example.com. Thanks for listening.