That mutual fund you bought, figuring it would shield you from pain in the stock market, may turn out to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
I’m talking about the mutual funds in 401(k) plans, individual retirement accounts and 529 college savings plans that carry the soothing words “moderate allocation” in their names or descriptions. These are the no-brainer funds that have become popular because novices don’t have to know much about investing. They simply buy a relatively mild-mannered fund containing both stocks and bonds and then they’re done making decisions.
People with these funds may assume they can go on with their lives, while relying on a fund manager to avoid taking big chances in the stock market.
But many funds that were cautious after the financial crisis have begun to morph into something very different. Fund managers that run a number of “moderate” funds are bulking up on stock and seem to have forgotten they are choosing investments for those who might be afraid of sharp losses.
So if the stock market turns ugly, risk-averse people could be stunned by large losses in retirement and college savings.
Morningstar analyst Greg Carlson recently found moderate allocation funds that toned down the risk they were taking when investors were afraid in 2008-09 were only temporarily cautious. In February 2009, according to Carlson, the typical moderate-allocation fund had only 55.3 percent of investors’ money invested in stocks, with the rest in safer alternatives – bonds and cash.
But by the end of November last year, many funds with conservative reputations had shirked the conservative approach and channeled a relatively risky 70 to 75 percent into stocks. Some of the moderate allocation funds that have added risk are Dodge & Cox Balanced, Fidelity Puritan, Invesco Equity and Income, and Oakmark Equity and Income, Carlson said.
Keeping 70 percent of an investor’s money in stocks is a fairly large proportion and could mean big losses in a sharp stock market downturn. It is far higher than the 60 percent average that’s usually considered “moderate.”
For a taste of the difference, consider the financial crisis. If a person had $10,000 invested just before the stock market started falling 50 percent in late 2007, and put 70 percent into stocks and 30 percent into bonds then, he would have had only about $6,540 left by March 2009. If instead he had been more conservative and had 60 percent in stocks and 40 percent in bonds, he would have had $7,140 left at the scariest moment in 2009. Because the person with a bigger chunk of money in stocks lost more money, it took him longer to get back to even.
Three years after suffering the worst losses, the person with 60 percent in stock (the Standard & Poor’s 500 index) and 40 percent in long-term government bonds had not only recovered but had amassed a total of $12,340 in the moderate stock and bond combination. The person who had the riskier 70 percent allocation in stocks hadn’t regained as much. He had just $11,725.
None of this might matter if the person has a steel stomach and doesn’t worry during the downturns of 20 percent or more that arrive on average every five years. But most do worry and some run away, locking in losses that last for years. So if they know ahead of time that they can’t stomach large losses, and consequently choose a moderate allocation fund, that’s what they should get – not a more aggressive pretender.
Recently, fund managers have been adding stocks and cutting back on bonds because bonds have been paying so little interest. Also, as interest rates climb in the next few months or years, bonds are likely to lose money too. But financial planner Michael Kitces of Reston, Va., said that’s no reason for fund managers to take more risks than usual in stocks.
“Maybe bonds lose 5 or 10 percent, but that’s not exactly a catastrophe,” he said. “Only five years ago, the S&P 500 lost 50 percent. And there are years when stocks and bonds have losses together.”
Deerfield, Ill., planner Sue Stevens suggests you ask: “Is your fund company looking out for you or just trying to make more money being in stock?”
If the percentage is more than the 60 that a person intended when selecting a moderate allocation fund originally, she said, that person should look for another fund – perhaps another company’s moderate fund. In a 401(k) with few choices, it might be a “conservative” allocation fund or a fund with a retirement date years before your planned retirement.