The Quality of Underlying Funds in Target Date Fund Evaluation | Capital Group

Defined Contribution Insights

March 2015

The Quality of Underlying Funds in Target Date Fund Evaluation

“Do you understand the principal strategies and risks of the fund?”

— U.S. Department of Labor

Meeting DOL Guidelines, Article 4 of 5

Satisfy DOL guidelines with a participant-focused approach to evaluating target date funds.


Wesley Phoa, portfolio manager, target date and fixed-income funds, 21 years of experience.

Jason Bortz, ERISA attorney, 17 years of experience.

Toni Brown, CFA senior defined contribution specialist, 25 years of experience.

John Doyle, senior defined contribution specialist, 28 years of experience.

Rich Lang, investment specialist, 21 years of experience.

Years of experience as of December 31, 2014.

Target date funds have enormous potential to make defined contribution plans more effective and straightforward for participants. But to capture the funds’ benefits — and to help meet fiduciary obligations — plan sponsors must implement thorough, well-documented evaluation procedures.

The U.S. Department of Labor has made it clear that plan sponsors must carefully evaluate target date series before adding them to a plan’s investment lineup, periodically re-evaluate any target date funds currently offered by the plan and document the process.1 Yet evaluating and understanding target date funds can present challenges to plan sponsors. Although the funds are designed to make retirement investing simple and convenient for plan participants, their underlying construction can be complex and can vary widely among the dozens of series on the market.

We believe that plan sponsors’ evaluation process should encompass the following five considerations:

  1. Participant Needs

  2. Glide Path Construction

  3. Cost Versus Value

  4. Quality of Underlying Funds

  5. Consistency and Repeatability

In this series of five articles, we walk plan sponsors, consultants and retirement plan advisors through each of the five components of the evaluation process. Thorough, effective target date fund evaluation will help plan sponsors fulfill not only the letter of the fiduciary rules, but also their intent: to give participants the best opportunity to meet their retirement saving and investing needs.

Consideration 4: Quality of Underlying Funds

The funds that underlie a target date series may be as important to its returns and risks as the glide path, so evaluating a target date fund requires an analysis of the funds within it. When evaluating a target date series’ underlying funds, consider the following criteria:

Persistency over long periods. Compare rolling-period returns with those of the funds’ peers. Rolling-period returns eliminate end-point bias — the potentially misleading effect that the end point of a specific time period has on returns for that period.

Plan sponsors can use a number of metrics to factor risk into their analysis. Sharpe ratio measures how well the fund’s shareholders have been compensated for the risk the fund has taken; the higher the Sharpe ratio, the better the fund’s risk-adjusted performance. Comparing upside- and downside-capture ratios also can provide valuable insight into fund results: Look for funds that have captured more of the market’s gains than losses.

Volatility. Reviewing an underlying fund’s volatility metrics alongside those of its peers can provide a sense of the account-balance swings to which it exposes shareholders. Metrics to consider include:

  • Standard deviation
  • Semi-deviation (volatility of returns below the mean)
  • Maximum drawdown
  • Worst one-year return

Strategies to mitigate risk. Funds may use a variety of strategies to manage risk. Plan sponsors should be sure to understand these strategies and the provider’s rationale for using them.

Fund consistency. The longer a fund has operated with the same investment strategy, the more confidence a plan sponsor can have that its track record is the result of the strategy rather than fortunate timing. A long history with a consistent investment strategy also gives a plan sponsor the opportunity to review the fund’s performance in a wide variety of economic and market environments, providing greater insight into its likely results in the future.

Tenure of fund managers. Many plan sponsors favor funds with more-experienced managers. Morningstar® notes that more-experienced managers in target date funds generally have produced better results for shareholders, both at the individual fund and series level.2

Diversification. Seek to understand each underlying fund’s approach to diversification. Some funds make it a priority to hold a broadly diversified portfolio; others pursue excess return by concentrating assets in securities or security types the manager believes are attractive. If a series includes funds with concentrated portfolios, plan sponsors should understand and feel comfortable with the role they play in the larger fund series.

Ideas for Action

  • Review persistency of underlying funds’ returns
  • Examine the consistency of underlying funds’ strategies and management
  • Evaluate underlying funds’ approaches to diversification and risk management

This information is intended to highlight issues and not to be comprehensive or to provide advice.

1 U.S. Dept. of Labor, “Target Date Retirement Funds — Tips for ERISA Plan Fiduciaries,” February 2013.

2 Morningstar, Inc, “2014 Target-Date Series Research Paper,” July 2014.


Investments are not FDIC-insured, nor are they deposits of or guaranteed by a bank or any other entity, so they may lose value.

Investors should carefully consider investment objectives, risks, charges and expenses. This and other important information is contained in the mutual fund prospectuses and summary prospectuses, which can be obtained from a financial professional, and should be read carefully before investing. Similar information about collective investment trusts can be obtained from Capital Group or participants’ plan provider or employer. 

Statements attributed to an individual represent the opinions of that individual as of the date published and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Capital Group or its affiliates. This information is intended to highlight issues and should not be considered advice, an endorsement or a recommendation. This material does not constitute legal or tax advice. Investors should consult with their legal or tax advisors. 

The Capital Group companies manage equity assets through three investment groups. These groups make investment and proxy voting decisions independently. Fixed income investment professionals provide fixed income research and investment management across the Capital organization; however, for securities with equity characteristics, they act solely on behalf of one of the three equity investment groups.

This content, developed by Capital Group, home of American Funds, should not be used as a primary basis for investment decisions and is not intended to serve as impartial investment or fiduciary advice.