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Target-Date Funds Benchmark

Target-Date Funds

Are Target-Date Funds Using the Right Benchmarks?

David Dierking May 02, 2017



In case if you are wondering whether mutual funds are right for you at all, you should read why mutual funds, in general, should be a part of your portfolio.


Why Proper Benchmarks Are Important


Benchmarks should serve a number of important functions:

  • Gauging relative performance on a risk-adjusted basis – You wouldn’t want to measure the performance of a bond fund against a stock, nor would you want to measure a large-cap fund against a small-cap one. A good benchmark will help determine what type of return should have been expected for a given level of risk and if the target-date fund was able to outperform that risk-adjusted return.
  • Helping to address lack of historical data – The emergence of target-date funds is a relatively recent phenomenon. As such, most target-date funds don’t have more than a 10-year history. A proper benchmark can help establish how an investment strategy could be expected to perform in light of a lack of performance data.
  • Aiding in understanding of how the fund fits in a broader portfolio – Benchmarks should help determine what the target-date fund’s composition and risk level should look like. If a fund has an improper benchmark, an investor may think his or her portfolio is properly diversified when, in reality, it may have overlapping sector exposures or be too risky.

Check out our “Do Mutual Fund Benchmarks Matter?” article, to know more about why mutual fund benchmarks better.


How Traditional Benchmarks Are Misused


A similar problem exists when measuring against a peer group using the same target year. BlackRock determined that a 50-50 asset allocation is appropriate for a 2020 target date, but a target-date fund’s investment strategy is determined entirely by the provider. For example, the Wells Fargo Dow Jones Target 2020 Fund (WFLPX) has only 30% invested in equities. The Fidelity Freedom 2020 Fund (FFFDX) has 65% invested in stocks. Just because funds share a target date doesn’t mean they look anything like each other.

Custom benchmarks can help address these issues to a degree but don’t necessarily solve the entire problem. Many are essentially built to reflect the target-date fund itself so they may undermine the ability of the fund manager to outperform. Custom benchmarks can also change over time. This was the case with the BlackRock fund that recently increased the equity exposure of the portfolio across the entire glide path.

Check out our “Due Diligence for a Target-Date Fund” article, to learn about what criteria to use when choosing between target-date funds.


Independent Benchmark Providers


These benchmarks are a step in the right direction but still have their challenges when it comes to measuring funds with similar target dates but very different portfolios.


Factors to Consider in Selecting a Benchmark


  • Glide path – Look at the methodology for how the glide path is constructed and see if it is in line with appropriate risk targets. The target date 2020 funds listed above show how different the funds can look.
  • Weighting methodology – How is the benchmark constructed? The Dow Jones indices set a high-level stock/bond/cash allocation and then equal weight within the sub-asset classes. Does this accurately reflect the target-date fund?
  • Asset allocation – Look at not only the percentages allocated to stocks and bonds but also factors such as style, sector, quality and geography.
  • Tracking error – Tracking error is the enemy of any good benchmark. As tracking error increases, its effectiveness as a good benchmark diminishes.
  • ‘To’ vs. ‘Through’ criteria – What does the fund do when it hits its target date? Does it switch to mostly cash or does it maintain its target date allocation indefinitely?


The Bottom Line


Be sure to follow our Target-Date Funds section to learn more about target-date funds.

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