When Target-Risk Makes More Sense Than Target-Date

The reason why target-risk funds gave way to target-date funds is the perceived simplicity of just using one’s retirement date to set the portfolio's investment risk tolerance—but this approach doesn’t work optimally for all participants.

Invesco has released findings from its new study, “The Forgotten Participant,” examining defined contribution (DC) participant investing behaviors and decisions regarding the core investment menu.

The research finds that DC plan providers have made significant progress in helping participants address the challenges of reaching a financially secure retirement through automatic enrollment, automatic escalation and auto-default into target-date funds (TDFs). At the same time, the retirement plan industry has overlooked a “significant segment” of participants that are actively making investment decisions—often ineffectively—across the core DC plan menu in an effort to diversify and fine tune their risk profile.

John Galateria, managing director and head of North America Institutional for Invesco, tells PLANADVISER the best way to explain this new research is to make one thing abundantly clear.

“By no means are we advocating that target-risk strategies should come in and automatically replace target-date strategies,” Galateria says. “Target-date strategies have done a lot to provide diversified and professionally managed portfolios to participants that are relatively straightforward to understand and use. They give many people a much more stable and rationale way to approach their retirement investing.”

Instead, what the new analysis is about is looking again at the core menu and understanding some of the potential unintended consequences that have come about due to the radical simplification of core menus that has occurred in the last decade since the passage of the Pension Protection Act (PPA), which helped to normalize and popularize TDFs as default investments.

“We are asking whether we can see a world where target-date and target-risk go together on the same plan menu,” Galateria says. “What would that mean for these overlooked or forgotten participants who are trying to direct their own portfolios?”

Stepping back, Galateria says, the main reason why target-risk gave way to target-date is not that target-risk strategies are inherently inferior. Instead, target-date funds have benefited from the added perceived simplicity.

“The fund you pick is simply based on your age, versus something more complex like your risk tolerance,” Galateria says. “We know that, for many people, their understanding of risk is somewhat challenged, but that’s not universally true. We did a series of focus groups as part of this research project, and we saw clearly that there is an informed population out there that is thinking deeply about risk, their time horizon, and more. These people are not asleep at the wheel and they don’t just want to invest in TDFs.”

Invesco’s survey finds 65% of all participants felt that a risk-based solution would be a good fit for them, personally, while 80% of higher income participants would invest in risk-based strategies. At the same time, 64% of plan sponsors are interested in adding risk-based strategies to the investment menu as they allow participants to take the amount of investment risk that meets their needs.

“The survey data and focus groups have proven to be really important in understanding what is going on here,” says Greg Jenkins, Invesco’s head of institutional defined contribution. “We observed a sizable group of people that didn’t want a TDF but weren’t 100% confident in investing on their own. They want more control and to be engaged more than a set-it-and-forget-it investor. They are great candidates for target-risk strategies.”

According to Jenkins and Galateria, older and wealthier participants voiced stronger support for target-risk strategies, as did participants who have multiple investment accounts within their household—say a pension, an individual retirement account (IRA) or even other 401(k) plans.

“They wanted to be able to dial in a particular level of risk for their current DC plan investments,” Jenkins explains. “We also saw a group of younger participants who really didn’t resonate with the whole concept of having a pre-defined, one-time retirement date. They don’t think about retirement as a single date, at all. So TDFs are confusing to some younger participants. Also, we heard from quite a few people that they actually wanted to be able to dial up risk beyond what is offered in the default TDF.”

Galateria says the industry has learned a lot from behavioral finance researchers since the passage of the PPA.

“This is starting to change, but until recently, there was a challenge associated with asking people to accurately assess their own risk tolerance,” Galateria says. “The old-fashioned quizzes could only go so far. But now, with all the tools of behavioral finance and with researchers being able to use digital tools to analyze the real behaviors and goals of participants, we are realizing that risk tolerance is not contained in the responses to a questionnaire. Risk tolerance is actually much more emotional and aspirational than logical, and we have come to understand this a lot better.”