What Is a Target-Date Fund?

A target-date fund is a fund offered by an investment company that seeks to grow assets over a specified period. The structuring of these funds addresses an investor's capital needs at some future date—hence, the name "target date." Most often, investors will use a target date fund to apply to their onset of retirement. However, these mutual funds may find a use in many portfolios that need to specify funds for a future event such as a child entering college.

Target date funds use a traditional portfolio management methodology to target asset allocation over the term of the fund to meet the investment return objective.

Key Takeaways

  • A target-date fund is a fund is a class of mutual funds that rebalances asset class weights over time so that it begins heavier to stocks when you are younger and heavier to bonds as you age.
  • The asset allocation of a target-date fund thus gradually grows more conservative as the target date nears and risk tolerance falls.
  • Target-date funds offer investors the convenience of putting their investing activities on autopilot in one vehicle, but that might not accommodate changing goals and needs.
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Who Actually Benefits From Target-Date Funds?

How a Target-Date Fund Works

Named by the year in which the investor plans to begin utilizing the assets, target-date funds are considered to be extremely long-term investments. For example, in July 2017, Vanguard launched its Target Retirement 2065 products. Given that the funds have a targeted utilization date of 2065 that gives them a time horizon of 48 years.

A fund's portfolio managers use this predetermined time horizon to fashion their investment strategy, generally based on traditional asset allocation models. The fund managers also use the target date to determine the degree of risk the fund is willing to undertake. Target-date portfolio managers typically readjust portfolio risk levels annually.

Targeting Allocation Through Risk Tolerance

Following the initial launch, a target-date fund has a high tolerance for risk and therefore is more heavily weighted toward high-performing but speculative assets. At the annual adjustment, portfolio managers will reset the allocation of investment categories.

A target-date fund’s portfolio mix of assets and degree of risk become more conservative as it approaches its objective target date. Higher risk portfolio investments typically include domestic and global equities. Lower risk portions of a target-date portfolio typically include fixed-income investments such as bonds and cash equivalents.

Most fund marketing materials show the allocation glide path—that is, the shift of assets—across the entire investment time horizon. The funds structure their glide rate to achieve the most conservative allocation right at the specified target date.

Some target-date funds, known as “through” funds (To funds) will also manage funds to a specified asset allocation past the target date. In the years beyond the target date, allocations are more heavily weighted toward low-risk, fixed income investments.

Advantages of Target-Date Funds

Target-date funds are popular with 401(k) plan investors. Instead of having to choose several investments to create a portfolio that will help them reach their retirement goals, investors choose a single target-date fund to match their time horizon. For example, a younger worker hoping to retire in 2065 would choose a target-date 2065 fund, while an older worker hoping to retire in 2025 would choose a target-date 2025 fund.

These funds mitigate the need for other assets. Some financial professionals advise that if you invest in one, it should be the only investment in your plan. This one-and-done approach is because additional investments could skew your overall portfolio allocation. However, after you've picked a fund, you have the ultimate set-it-and-forget-it investment.

Pros

  • The ultimate autopilot way to invest

  • All-in-one vehicle—no need for other assets

  • A diversified portfolio

Cons

  • Higher expenses than other passive investments

  • Income not guaranteed

  • Possibly insufficient inflation hedge

  • Little room for changing investor goals, needs

Disadvantages of Target-Date Funds

Of course, the autopilot nature of target-date funds can cut both ways. The predetermined shifting of the portfolio assets may not suit an individual's changing goals and needs. People grow and change, and so do their needs.

What if you have to retire substantially earlier than the target date—or decide you want to keep working longer? Also, there is no guarantee that the fund's earnings will keep up with inflation. In fact, there are no guarantees that the fund will generate a certain amount of income or gains at all. A target-date fund is an investment, not an annuity. As with all investments, these funds are subject to risk and underperformance.

Furthermore, as investments go, target-date funds can be expensive. They are technically a fund of funds (FoF)—a fund that invests in other mutual funds or exchange-traded funds—which means you have to pay the expense ratios of those underlying assets, as well as the fees of the target-date fund.

Of course, an increasing number of funds are no-load, and overall, fee rates have been decreasing. Still, it is something to watch out for, especially if your fund invests in a lot of passively managed vehicles. Why pay double fees on index funds, when you could buy and hold them on your own?

Also, it's worth bearing in mind that similarly named target-date funds are not the same—or, more specifically, their assets are not the same. Yes, all 2045 target-dated funds will be heavily weighted toward equities, but some might opt for domestic stocks, while others look to international stocks. Some might go for investment-grade bonds, and others choose high-yield, lower-grade debt instruments. Make sure the fund's portfolio of assets fit your comfort level and own appetite for risk.

Real-Life Example of Target-Date Funds

Vanguard is one investment manager offering a comprehensive series of target-date funds. Below we compare the characteristics of the Vanguard 2065 (VLXVX) fund to the characteristics of the Vanguard 2025 fund.

The Vanguard Target Retirement 2065 Fund has an expense ratio of 0.15%. As of Feb. 28, 2019, the portfolio allocation was 89.81% in stocks, 10.01% in bonds and 0.18% in short-term reserves. It had 54.10% invested in the Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund, 35.9% invested in the Vanguard Total International Stock Index Fund, 7.10% invested in the Vanguard Total Bond Market II Index Fund, and 2.90% invested in the Vanguard Total International Bond Index Fund.

The Vanguard Target Retirement 2025 Fund (VTTVX) has an expense ratio of 0.13%. The portfolio is weighted 62.39% in stocks, 37.56% in bonds, and 0.05% in short-term reserves. It has allocated 37.60% of assets to the Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund, 26.6% to the Vanguard Total Bond Market II Index Fund, 24.80% to the Vanguard Total International Stock Index Fund, and 11% to the Vanguard Total International Bond Index Fund.

Both funds invest in the same assets. However, the 2065 Fund is more heavily weighted toward stocks, with a relatively smaller percentage of bonds and cash equivalents. The 2025 Fund has greater weight in fixed income and fewer stocks, so it is less volatile and more likely to contain the assets the investor needs to begin making withdrawals in 2025.

In the years beyond the target date, both Vanguard target-date funds report an asset allocation mix of approximately 20% in U.S. equities, 10% in international equities, 40% in U.S. bonds, 10% in international bonds, and about 20% in short-term TIPS.