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How to Build an Alternative to Target Date Funds


Despite what many brokers say, one size does not fit all for a solid retirement plan. Here's how to create a custom portfolio.

Don't want to fiddle with stocks or mutual funds and have a keen eye on risk? What you need is a "target-death" portfolio, not a "target-date" product.

I know this macabre-sounding product won't fly with financial services marketers like Charles Schwab (SCHW) or Merrill Lynch (BAC). Yet this sophisticated risk and return mix would ensure you'll have enough money until you die while hedging the ravages of job and securities markets, longevity risk and inflation.

Since such a retail portfolio doesn't really exist in generic form, it needs to be assembled on your own or with a fee-only financial advisor.

In contrast, target-date or "lifestyle" funds were created by the mutual-fund industry to package several funds for people who didn't want to assemble portfolios on their own. As you get older, the portfolio is automatically adjusted to shift out of stock funds into bonds to lower your chances of losing money.

So the theory goes, anyway. Many of these funds performed badly in 2008, even though they were pitched as low-risk. After losing up to 41 percent in 2008, investors are still smarting from target-date products through last year.

That's why Congress and several federal agencies have been investigating them recently.

The most misleading selling point of target-date funds is that they securely produce a set amount of money about the time you retire. Yet they're not principal-protected and they're also not very flexible.

What if you need to work longer and desire more growth in your portfolio? What if you have to leave the workforce due to disability and need to eschew all market risk? A comprehensive financial plan addresses these needs; a target-date fund doesn't.

There are three distinct pieces to a comprehensive plan. The first is an honest assessment of the kind of risk you can tolerate. I'm not talking about taking a gut-check of how much you can afford to lose before you suffer from insomnia or dyspepsia.

Before you craft a portfolio, your occupational risk measure is essential. Are you working in real estate? Consider ramping up your broad-based holdings in bonds. In a secure government job? Possibly stocks can take center stage.

An essential second link in building your portfolio is to customize a risk-savvy portfolio.

Beware the boilerplates offered by financial advisors and "consultants," though. Brokers will give you a pre-set stock/bond allocation based on your age with little consideration paid to cost, labor-market risk, or family situations. That's always been a faulty sales pitch, which is usually loaded up with expensive, poor-performing "house" products designed to earn commissions and generate fees.

Instead, build a portfolio based on the risks that scare you the most and the ones you can't predict.

The last piece of your plan is flexibility. Are you in the late stages of a college-education funding program? You won't need a broker or advisor to protect your money. Federally insured certificates of deposit are wise.

What if you want to work longer or start another career? That's a likely scenario for those who have shattered retirement portfolios or bruised careers. I know several people in their seventh decade who are onto their third occupation.

Whatever you do, don't assume that any robotic "lifestyle'' or target-date mutual fund or 401(k) package will suit your long-term needs or adequately shelter you from the most pernicious risks.

If you decide that you just don't want to be bothered -- or can't afford a money manager or financial planner because you have less than $100,000 to invest -- then choose a lower-risk target-date fund. Also keep an eye on costs. Broker-sold funds are the most expensive. Low-cost, conservative funds are available from the Vanguard Group, T. Rowe Price (TROW) and American Funds.

Along with risk, fund transparency is non-negotiable. If you buy a portfolio plan or do it yourself, know what's inside of the box.

You may not be fully aware of what's inside a lifecycle fund package. The risks you're taking are not fully disclosed and the whole package may cost you more in annual fund expenses than the sum of its parts.

Just keep in mind that if you choose a lifecycle fund, there are never guarantees of principal. The package looks great until the market tanks.

With a flexible and comprehensive plan, there's no need to suffer an impaired lifestyle in the future. If you plan right, you shouldn't be mortified when you open your statements.

John F. Wasik is a columnist, speaker, and author of The Audacity of Help: Obama's Economic Plan and the Remaking of America.
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