Fidelity is one of the largest providers of 401(k) plans and like many fund company platforms it is common for their plan sponsor clients to offer several or all of Fidelity’s Target Date funds known as the Fidelity Freedom funds. These funds have target dates from 2005 every five years out to 2050 with an even shorter-term Retirement Income fund. The premise behind these and other Target Date funds is that a plan participant will choose a fund with a date close to when he or she might retire, invest their contributions and let the fund manager do the rest. The funds typically lighten up on equity investments as the target date draws nearer, at some point they go to a “glide path” into retirement typically at the target year. This means the fund at that point is geared to the typical life expectancy of someone retiring in that year, the allocation allows the fund shareholder to “glide” into retirement.
There has been much controversy as to whether Target Date funds work as advertised. My purpose in writing this post is not to comment on these issues one way or the other. Rather I want to take a look at how the Fidelity Freedom Funds actually invest shareholder’s money.
The Freedom Funds like many Target Date funds are funds of funds. Each Freedom Fund has its own mutual fund ticker symbol. Unlike many mutual funds which make direct investments into individual stocks or bonds, the Freedom Funds invest in a variety of Fidelity mutual funds. Which funds and the percentage held of each fund will vary by Freedom Fund. I made a list of their underlying holdings using Morningstar’s Advisor Workstation. I then used the Fi360 Toolkit to rate these funds based on their 11 point criteria:
• Fund inception date (at least three years)
• Manager Tenure (min. 2 years)
• Minimum fund size
• 2 measures relating to fund investment style and asset composition
• Expense ratio
• 2 measurements of risk-adjusted return
• Trailing 1,3,5 year returns
All funds are rated relative to other funds in their peer group.
In looking at the 26 Fidelity mutual funds that I found as holdings of the various Freedom Funds I found the following for the ranking period ending 12/31/09:
• Three of the funds received the highest ranking of 0. This means no deficiencies, they passed all criteria.
• An additional four funds earned a score ranging from 1-25 indicating that they passed most of the criteria. This would indicate that these funds rank in the top 25% of all funds in their peer group with enough data to be ranked.
• Four funds had scores ranging from 26-50 indicating that they did not pass in a couple of areas but these funds overall rank in the top half of their respective peer groups based upon the ranking criteria.
• Five of the funds had a ranking in the 51-74 range indicating that they were deficient in several of the criteria and overall place in the lower half of their peers with enough history to be ranked.
• One fund had a score of 87 meaning that it was deficient in most areas and ranked in the bottom 13% of its peers. A ranking in this range indicates that strong consideration should be given to replacing such a fund.
• Nine of the funds did not have enough history to be ranked. These funds are all Fidelity Series funds. This appears to be a new group of funds that Fidelity has designed for use in their Freedom Funds. The funds all have anywhere from a month’s worth of history out to about a year. They would flunk the inception date test for the amount of time the fund has been around. These may ultimately prove to be good funds over time, but as an advisor I am generally loath to invest client money in new, untested funds unless there is a compelling reason to do so.
• Noticeably absent from the underlying funds within the Freedom Funds are any of Fidelity’s low cost core index funds covering areas such as the S&P; 500; total domestic stock market; international equities; or their total bond market index fund. These are by and large solid, low cost holdings. Also absent are several top Fidelity funds such as Contra, Low-Priced Stock, and others.
In their defense of the 11 numbered Freedom Funds, 10 earned a score of 0 for the most recent ranking period and the other one earned a top quartile score of 20. Keep in mind; however, these rankings are within the target date peer groups via Morningstar. All of these groupings have a small number of funds and there is not a lot of history in some cases. A really good or really bad quarter or two can skew a target fund’s relative ranking. Additionally the peer groupings have changed and been revamped at least twice in the past several years.
Should you invest in these funds? As a plan participant you need to understand the fund’s investment philosophy, the glide path concept, and the fund’s underlying investments. Remember just because a particular fund has a target date closest to when you might retire, you can go with a closer date fund if you want to be a little less aggressive or a longer-dated fund if you want to be a bit more aggressive.
Plan sponsors it is incumbent upon you to monitor the Target Date funds in your plan as closely as you would review any plan investment choice. In the case of a Fidelity plan you may or may not be limited to the Freedom Funds.
Again I am not saying the Freedom funds are good or bad. Clearly they did well relative to their peers in 2009. Participants and Sponsors need to understand these funds and what they can and cannot offer.