Use of Target-Date Funds in 401(k) Plans, 2007

March 2009
EBRI Issue Brief #327
Paperback, 32 pp.
PDF, 1,298 kb
Employee Benefit Research Institute, 2009

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Executive Summary

WHAT THEY ARE: Target-date funds (also called “life-cycle” funds) are a type of mutual fund that automatically rebalances its asset allocation following a predetermined pattern over time. They typically rebalance to more conservative and income-producing assets as the participant’s target date of retirement approaches.

WHY THEY’RE IMPORTANT AND GROWING: Of the 401(k) plan participants in the EBRI/ICI 401(k) database who were found to be in plans that offered target-date funds, 37 percent had at least some fraction of their account in target-date funds in 2007. Target-date funds held about 7 percent of total assets in 401(k) plans and the use of these funds is expected to increase in the future. The Pension Protection Act of 2006 made it easier for plan sponsors to automatically enroll new workers in a 401(k) plan, and target-date funds were one of the types of approved funds specified for a “default” investment if the participant does not elect a choice.

EBRI/ICI 401(K) DATABASE: This study uses the unique richness of the data in the EBRI/ICI Participant-Directed Retirement Plan Data Collection Project, which has almost 22 million participants, to examine the choices and characteristics of participants whose plans offer target-date funds.

EFFECT OF AGE, SALARY, JOB TENURE, AND ACCOUNT BALANCE: Younger workers are significantly more likely to invest in target-date funds than are older workers: Almost 44 percent of participants under age 30 had assets in a target-date fund, compared with 27 percent of those 60 or older. Target-date funds appeal to those with lower incomes, little time on the job, and with few assets. On average, target-date fund investors are about 2.5 years younger than those who do not invest in target-date funds, have about 3.5 years less tenure, make about $11,000 less in salary, have $25,000 less in their account, and are in smaller plans.

EFFECT OF AUTOMATIC ENROLLMENT: While the EBRI/ICI database does not contain specific information on whether a 401(k) plan had automatic enrollment, this analysis was able to proxy for those who could be identified as automatically enrolled. The data show that workers who were considered to be automatically enrolled in their employer’s 401(k) plan are significantly more likely to invest all their assets in a target-date fund than those who voluntarily joined, and were also less likely to have extreme all-or-nothing asset allocations to equities.

EQUITY ALLOCATIONS AND FUND FAMILIES: One of the major questions surrounding target-date funds is the equity allocations that these funds use over time (the so-called “glide path”) as a participant’s retirement target date approaches. The glide paths of different target-date funds have significantly different shapes and starting/ending equity allocations. As of 2007, the equity allocation ranges from about 80–90 percent for 2040 funds (for workers about 30 years away from retirement), and from 26–66 percent for 2010 funds (for workers one year away from retirement)—a 40 percentage-point difference. Moreover, the fund families change their relative rank in equity allocation within the different fund years. This analysis finds that the relative rank of the equity allocation within a target-date fund does not appear to affect the percentage of participants investing all their account into that fund. Nevertheless, investors in specific fund families are more likely to invest all their assets in a single target-date fund from that family.