Alternatives Investments will improve the investment outcomes of Target-Date Funds

Including alternative investments in Target-Date Funds (TDF) will improve their investment outcomes.

This is the conclusion of a recently published research report by the Center for Retirement Initiatives at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy, developed in conjunction with Willis Tower Watson.   The Evolution of Target Date Funds: Using Alternatives to Improve Retirement Plan Outcomes

The study concludes the use of alternative investment strategies “can improve expected retirement income and mitigate loss in downside scenarios.”


Many TDF are over exposed to equity risk, they are not truly diversified.

The above study notes that TDF need to increase their diversification away from equities and fixed interest that dominate their portfolios.  In short, TDF need to broaden their diversification to allow access to alternative return drivers.

This is seen as very important, “even more important step is improving the performance of the underlying investments. The use of alternatives in DB (Define Benefit) plans is an investment practice that should be considered in today’s DC (Define Contribution) plans, specifically in TDFs”

The article outlines the growing popularity of TDF and therefore the opportunity that is available to build better portfolios and improve investment outcomes for clients.


The study compared TDF’s comprising of only equities, bonds, and cash.  To this traditional portfolio they added individual allocations to Private Equity, Unlisted Property, and Hedge Funds separately.

The study first looked at outcomes of adding these alternative strategies in isolation to the Traditional Portfolio, and then when all are added to the Portfolio all together.

When adding the alternatives in isolation to a traditional equities and fixed interest portfolio they concluded that investment outcomes for TDF were improved by:

  • Increasing the amount of income that can be generated in retirement from the portfolio;
  • Increase the probability of maintaining positive assets after 30 years of retirement spending;
  • Delivering higher expected returns; and
  • Reducing downside risk, particularly reduce the negative impact of a negative market at time of retirement (reducing sequencing risk)


Therefore, investment outcomes for Target-Date Funds can be improved with greater levels of diversification (as can any portfolio which only invests in equities, bonds, and cash).

Investment outcomes were improved with any one of the alternative strategies implemented in isolation.


The study then looked at TDF when all the alternative strategies were added to the Traditional Portfolio.

As they note “previous examples look attractive in isolation, we now turn to considering how these strategies contribute to a diversified implementation that includes allocations to all these assets. Not only do these alternative asset classes provide diversification or differentiated return drivers relative to equities and fixed income, but they also provide attractive cross-correlation benefits when viewed in combination with each other (meaning they outperform and underperform at different times from one another).”


Importantly, portfolios were constructed to be of similar risk along the glide path, the increased diversification of adding alternative provides risk benefits over time.

A higher allocation to return seeking assets is able to be maintained over time given the diversification benefits of adding alternatives to the TDF.

Again investment outcome were improved upon compared to a Traditional Portfolio of Equities and Fixed Interest, higher retirement income (+17%) and improved downside risk outcomes (+11%)


Importantly, they noted:  “One straightforward way to mitigate downside risk is to shift more equities into fixed income, though that approach would materially lower expected returns and adversely impact participants who intended to utilize the funds as a source for income throughout retirement.  Additionally, shifting from equities to core fixed income lessens equity risk but increases other risks such as interest rate and inflation. Instead, participants may be better off by further diversifying their portfolios.”


Notably they comment that this is part of an overall plan to improve retirement income outcomes:

“In order to improve retirement income outcomes, plan sponsors must pull all of the levers at their disposal across their organizations. While a number of enhancements have been made with investment vehicles …., plan design…….., and communications, DC plans still lag behind other large investment pools in the use of alternative asset classes. There is a reason why alternative assets are used more often in other investment pools: They can improve investment efficiency and the net-of-fee value proposition.”


Implementation Considerations

The paper covers a number of implementation issues, such as Governance, liquidity, and fees.

Their comments of fees hits the mark:

“To include the potential benefits of alternatives in TDFs, plan sponsors need to be comfortable increasing total fund fees, which can be accomplished through a prudent process focused on enhancing potential outcomes for participants. The fee compression in TDFs has come at the expense of the potential increased returns, lower volatility and portfolio efficiency alternatives could provide.”

Think about after fee outcomes.


Concluding remarks

Overall the outcomes from this Study are hardly surprising.  The use of alternatives has been shown to improve the investment outcomes of other investment portfolios and are widely used e.g. endowments, Insurance Companies, Super (Pension) Funds, and as mentioned Defined Benefit Funds.

The Study notes “As of 2016, the largest corporate pension plans in the Fortune 1000 (assets greater than $2.1 billion) held average allocations of 4.2 percent to hedge funds, 3.4 percent to private equity, 3.0 percent to real estate and 3.6 percent to “other” asset classes.” And “public pensions allocate even more to alternative investments (approximately 25 percent), according to the National Association of State Retirement Administrators.”

This is not to take anything away from the Study, it is great analysis, enhances our understanding of TDF, and is well worth reading.


Lastly, investment outcomes for Target-Date Funds can also be enhanced with the more active management of the glide path strategy.  This may include delaying the pace of transitioning from risky assets (which would include alternatives!) to safer assets or stepping off the glide path given extreme risk environments.

Investment outcomes for clients can also be improved if more client information is used over and above age to determine an investment glide paths e.g. changes in salary leading to a higher expected standard of living.  This is where technology can have a massive impact on the industry.

Many TDF have their limitations, particularly they have no goal and the glide path is based solely on age.

The experience in retirement is changing, we are living longer, more robust retirement solutions are needed.


Happy investing.


Global Investment Ideas from New Zealand. Building more Robust Investment Portfolios.


Please see my Disclosure Statement

8 thoughts on “Alternatives Investments will improve the investment outcomes of Target-Date Funds

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