There has been much discussion recently about life-cycle funds and their role in providing a secure retirement income for older Americans. These funds, which gradually shift account assets from broad-based stock funds to bond funds as a par- ticipant ages, are becom- ing an important vehicle for retirement savings. This policy brief explores the economic rationale behind the life-cycle approach and the advan- tages and limitations of life-cycle funds.
Introduction Life-cycle funds are a relatively new approach to retirement investing and have gained popularity in recent years. Although the characteristics of these funds vary, the general life-cycle proposition calls for investment port- folios that hold a decreasing propor- tion of assets in equities (associated with higher risk) and a greater pro- portion in xed-return investments (associated with lower risk) as an individual ages. Those types of plans seek to limit potential losses from market uctuations as an individual approaches retirement.
The building blocks of life-cycle funds are typi- cally broad-based index funds, such as a stock fund tied to the S&P 500 or to a corporate bond fund that tracks the Lehman Brothers Corporate Bond Index. Broad-based index funds lower risk to retirement income that would arise from undiversi ed investments in ... more. less.
individual companies. Life-cycle funds are an increasingly important topic in discussions about retirement income.<br><br> Vanguard (2004) reports rapid growth in the number of private-sector retirement plans that offer life-cycle funds. In addition, the de ned contribution plan offered to federal employees (the Thrift Savings Plan) now includes life-cycle funds. Some Social Security reform pro- posals call for the creation of personal retirement accounts.<br><br> Such accounts would allow individuals to invest in equities, corporate bonds, and govern- ment securities and could incorporate life-cycle funds. This brief explores some of the theoretical and empirical foundations for life-cycle funds by reviewing the nance literature on optimal portfolio theory. It also discusses actual life- cycle plans and the advantages and disadvantages of these types of funds.<br><br> Portfolio Theory Modern portfolio theory originated with the work of Markowitz (1952), who recognized that by combining assets that are not perfectly correlated (for example, assets whose returns do not move in complete unison with each other) an investor could reduce his or her investment risk without reducing expected returns. It is theo- retically possible to derive a portfolio of risky assets that returns the smallest amount of risk for a given return. Repeating this procedure many times for different levels of expected return produces the Mean-variance or Markowitz ef cient frontier (Chart 1).<br><br> Intended solely for illustrative pur- poses, the chart shows individual stocks with their respective ex-ante expected mean returns and standard deviations. The standard deviation, which measures how much a stock 9s annual return deviates from its long - term historical average, is used as an estimate of risk or variability of investment outcomes (the standard deviation is the square root of the variance). The curved line denotes the Policy Brief Portfolio Theory, Life-Cycle Investing, and Retirement Income Social Security www.socialsecurity.gov/policy No.<br><br> 2007-02 October 2007 2 f Policy Brief No. 2007-02 ef cient frontier, which is derived by combining the individual stocks and taking into account the degree of covariation between them. In reality, thousands of triangles and a very large number of computations would be needed to determine the ef cient frontier.<br><br> The implications of the ef cient frontier are quite signi cant. All portfolios falling on this frontier will provide the highest return for a given level Ã * of risk (vertical line) and, conversely, the lowest risk for a given level r* of return (horizontal line). The ef - cient frontier does not eliminate risk but reduces it to the lowest level possible for a given expected rate of return.<br><br> Investors wanting a portfolio of stocks with low risk could choose one from the bottom left portion of the ef cient frontier; those wishing to seek higher returns by taking on more risk could choose a portfolio from the upper right portion of the frontier. All points below the ef cient frontier are suboptimal in the sense that investors could increase their expected rate of return without assuming any additional risk. Although the discussion up to this point has focused on stock portfolios, the concept of an ef cient frontier can be generalized to incorporate other asset types, including bonds.<br><br> Bonds typically have both lower returns and lower standard deviations than stocks. Thus, in Chart 1, a bond-heavy portfolio would be located on the lower left portion and a stock-heavy portfolio on the upper right portion of the frontier. Life-cycle funds can be thought of as moving along the frontier (from the upper right to the lower left) as one ages.<br><br> Life-Cycle Funds The life-cycle funds described here create portfolios that are heavily concentrated in stocks at the beginning of the work life and gradually shift holdings to bonds as retirement nears. While this brief primarily focuses on the decision of how to invest accumulated savings, it is important to note that investors, in reality, face a set of complex and interrelated decisions over the life-cycle. The discussion here abstracts from many of those decisions (such as how much schooling to acquire, when to begin working, how much to save each period).<br><br> Several demographic and economic factors provide some rationale for life-cycle funds. The rst deals with how the value of human capital varies over time as a fraction of total wealth. Human capital is composed of elements that are xed (innate ability), that are largely xed after a certain point (formal schooling), and that vary with time (experience).<br><br> A good proxy for measur- ing the value of human capital is the present value of wages over an individual 9s remaining working life. This is generally considered much less variable or cstochastic d than equity returns because its determi- nants are, to some extent, xed. Therefore, to maintain a constant level of variability (risk exposure) over the life-cycle, relatively more of one 9s total nancial assets should be held in stocks when young and less as one gets older (Bodie, Merton, and Samuelson 1992).<br><br> To illustrate the constant risk of exposure approach, consider someone who wishes to hold 60 percent of total wealth at any given age in riskless assets (for example, in ation-protected bonds) and 40 percent in risky assets (for example, stocks). Suppose, further, the person 9s human capital at a young age is equivalent to a riskless asset valued at $300,000. If the person has $200,000 in nancial assets, they should all be held in risky assets (such as stocks) so that the 60/40 balance is achieved.<br><br> As the person ages, the value of human capital falls (because only a few working years remain) but the nancial assets grow. To maintain the 60/40 balance, nancial assets must increasingly be shifted out of risky assets. Although human capital is a determinant of the present value of lifetime earnings, it is not the only factor.<br><br> Individuals have discretion over whether to work and how much to work. This issue 4labor sup- ply exibility 4is also important in discussions of life-cycle funds. Intuitively, because younger workers r* * Standard deviation Mean return Chart 1.<br><br> Mean-variance efficient frontier SOURCE: Author's derivation. www.socialsecurity.gov/policy f 3 have greater labor supply exibility and have just begun their working lives, their age can act as a buffer against market downturns since additional work can make up for lost wealth. Jagannathan and Kocherla- kota (1996) argue that labor supply exibility makes life-cycle funds desirable, but only if equity returns are relatively uncorrelated with labor income.<br><br> Avenues for future research (Poterba and others 2006) focus on creating life-cycle portfolios that differ for singles as opposed to married couples 4an approach that takes into account the added labor supply exibility mar- ried couples have because of the potential of having two earners. Hence, married couples might be more inclined to invest a relatively larger fraction of their wealth in stocks later in life. The work of Jagannathan and Kocherlakota (1996) and Poterba and others (2006) examines labor supply exibility in the speci c context of life - cycle funds, while other research on the same general topic offers insight into the foundations of life - cycle funds.<br><br> Bodie (2001) examines labor supply exibility and portfolio choice in terms of retirement age. He assumes a xed saving rate and predictable earnings, from which he determines a baseline retirement income assuming retirement at age 65 and investments in riskless Trea- sury securities. He then considers whether the baseline retirement income could be achieved at an earlier retirement age with alternative portfolios: one invested 50 percent in stocks and 50 percent in riskless Trea- sury securities and the other invested completely in stocks.<br><br> If the future risk premium (the expected return on stocks minus the return on riskless Treasury bonds) is assumed to be 4 percent and the standard deviation of stock returns is 20 percent, then the portfolio with half of its assets invested in stocks and the other half invested in Treasury bonds has an expected retirement age of 61, but this comes with a small probability of having to postpone retirement to age 67 to achieve the desired level of retirement income. The all-stock portfolio has an expected retirement age of 57, but again carries a small probability of having to postpone retirement until age 68. Although Bodie 9s focus is on retirement age, his general point is that labor supply exibility can offset market losses.<br><br> With life-cycle funds, market losses will tend to be concentrated at relatively younger ages 4ages at which health and labor market opportunities may be more favorable. Booth (2004) nds support for life-cycle investing using a model that examines replacement rates. He argues that as the investment horizon increases, the distribution of ending wealth becomes more skewed, with the mean ending wealth being signi cantly greater than the median.<br><br> Thus, while a younger person may need to hold only 50 percent in stocks to achieve an cexpected d ending wealth (the mean distribution) that matches the replacement rate target, such a portfo- lio would not have a high probability of generating the appropriate ending wealth. In general, Booth argues that if individuals desire a high probability of achiev- ing the target replacement rate, they may need to hold a greater share of their portfolio in stocks when they are younger. Speci f c Approaches This section discusses speci c approaches to life-cycle investing as opposed to the general concept of holding a smaller percentage of assets in equities as one ages.<br><br> Four examples of life-cycle investment approaches are considered: a popular rule of thumb known as the c100-minus age d rule; the Malkiel approach (1990); the Shiller plan (2005); and the new cL Fund d plan offered to federal employ- ees through the Thrift Savings Plan, a de ned con- tribution retirement plan similar to a 401(k) plan. Clearly this is not an exhaustive list of possible life- cycle investment plans or approaches, but speci c examples will help sort out ideas and illustrate impor- tant concepts. Table 1 presents the percentage held in stocks at speci c ages under the four approaches.<br><br> The simplest of these approaches is the c100-minus age d rule, which dictates that the percentage invested in the stock mar- ket equal 100 minus one 9s age. For example, at age 55, " " " " Age 100- minus age Malkiel approach Shiller plan L fund (TSP) 25 75708585 35 65607175 55 45502650 Table 1. Illustrations of life-cycle fund allocations in equities, by age (in percent) SOURCE: Author's calculation.<br><br> 4 f Policy Brief No. 2007-02 45 percent of investments should be in a broad-based stock index fund and 55 percent in bonds. A somewhat more involved approach was suggested in Malkiel (1990).<br><br> Malkiel 9s approach suggests stock alloca- tions that are roughly similar to those derived from the c100-minus age d rule. The Shiller plan (2005) has a baseline life-cycle portfolio that is somewhat more aggressive at young ages and less so at later ages than is the c100-minus age d rule or Malkiel 9s plan. Recently, the federal Thrift Savings Plan began to offer life-cycle products.<br><br> These products, which are referred to as L funds, are based on planned retire- ment age rather than current age. They are composed of combinations from ve underlying funds: the S fund (Wilshire 4500 index), the C Fund (S&P 500 index), the I Fund (EAFE international stock index), the G Fund (federal government bond fund), and the F Fund (Lehman Brothers U.S. bond market index).<br><br> To illustrate, consider an individual born in 1980 who expects to retire after 2035 (such a person would use the L 2040 Fund). At age 25, the worker 9s port- folio would be composed of 85 percent stocks and 15 percent bonds. By age 55, about 50 percent of the portfolio would be held in stocks.<br><br> The L Fund plan is comparable with the Shiller plan at the beginning, but the Shiller plan drops the equity component much more quickly at later ages. Although the speci c allocations of the four life- cycle approaches vary, they are roughly comparable. They specify holding a majority of assets in stocks in the early years and then shifting to bonds as retirement nears (Table 1).<br><br> Preferences There is evidence that life-cycle investment strate- gies re ect people 9s general preferences. Several researchers have found investment behavior to be broadly consistent with the life-cycle advice. Schooley and Worden (1999), using data from the Survey of Consumer Finances, found that investors with long investment horizons lean more heavily toward stocks.<br><br> Speci cally, those with planning horizons of 5 or more years had roughly 50 percent of their assets invested in equities compared with less than 12 percent for those with horizons of 1 year or less. More generally, one - half of those with planning horizons of less than a year were unwilling to take any nancial risk with their assets, in contrast to only 25 percent of those with horizons of over 10 years being unwilling to take any risk. One issue these results cannot address is whether they re ect inherent preferences of individu- als or whether they are in response to advice given by nancial planners.<br><br> Bodie and Crane (1997) found similar results for retirement asset categories. Using data from TIAA- CREF, the proportion of retirement assets held in stocks declined with age (Table 2). The authors found a negative relationship between age and stock market investing roughly consistent with the c100-minus age d rule.<br><br> To be exact, for each addi- tional year one ages, the fraction invested in stocks declines by 0.6 percent. One caveat to interpreting these results as cage d effects is that investing prefer- ences may change across cohorts or generations (for example, today 9s younger workers may be willing to accept a greater level of nancial risk than previous generations). Life-cycle products appear to be increasing in popu- larity.<br><br> Vanguard (2004) noted that between 2000 and 2003 the number of plans offering speci c life-cycle funds has more than doubled. Limitations Some researchers, however, have questioned whether life-cycle approaches are appropriate for retirement saving. Several research studies show that these funds still expose investors to signi cant risk while eliminat- ing most upside potential.<br><br> Shiller (2005) simulated ending wealth balances of hypothetical life-cycle accounts using historical data for the S&P 500 and bond market returns and found that the life-cycle fund failed to outperform a 3 percent real return in 32 percent of trials, but a 100 percent investment in the S&P 500 would have beaten such a return in 98 percent of trials. Age groupCashBondsStocks 25 344 73460 45 354 63657 55 364 74350 65 or older 95537 Table 2. Retirement asset allocation, by age group (in percent) SOURCE: Bodie and Crane (1997).<br><br> NOTE: Totals may not sum to 100 percent because of rounding. www.socialsecurity.gov/policy f 5 Hickman and others (2001) simulated outcomes under Malkiel 9s approach, the c100-minus age d rule, and 100 percent investment in the S&P 500 index fund. Using a 30-year holding period, the two life- cycle approaches (Malkiel and c100-minus age d rule) yielded very similar outcomes and produced median wealth at retirement that was approximately one-half that associated with the index fund.<br><br> However, in about 15 percent of the simulations the life-cycle approaches did outperform the S&P 500, which suggests that occa- sionally the shift to bonds at later ages will be a cor- rect strategy. However, the authors question whether protection against this relatively rare outcome warrants the large reduction in expected ending wealth. In a similar fashion, Butler and Domian (1993) simulated ending balances for stocks, bonds, and life- cycle accounts and derived probability distributions for ending wealth.<br><br> Their conclusion was consistent with Hickman and others in that common stocks are the best vehicle for long - term retirement savings (life- cycle accounts outperformed a portfolio of all stocks in only about 8 percent of their simulations). Ho, Milevsky, and Robinson (1994) also emphasize the importance of stocks, arguing that higher risk/return investments may be necessary to minimize the chances of outliving one 9s assets in old age. It is important to emphasize, however, that the literature on the limitations of life-cycle funds is based on historical returns and often uses data from periods when stock returns were strong.<br><br> While riskless bonds may generally underperform stocks, they also protect against extremely negative outcomes (Bodie 1995). It is questionable whether the historical period for which data are available is long enough to re ect these extreme outcomes. Thus, one rationale for life-cycle funds is that they offer protection against extreme outcomes near retirement that occur with a very low probability.<br><br> Finally, some recent work questions the theoreti- cal and intuitive underpinnings of life-cycle funds. Benzoni, Collin-Dufresne, and Goldstein (2005) argue that changes in labor income tend to be more heavily correlated with stock returns over long horizons. In other words, rather than being cbondlike d in its vari- ability, labor income is cstocklike d over long horizons.<br><br> In this framework, individuals should diversify by holding less risky assets (such as bonds) when young and riskier assets (such as stocks) at later ages. Viceira (2001) and Lynch and Tan (2004) also consider the role of labor income in optimal portfolio holdings. Conclusion This policy brief provides policymakers with an over- view of portfolio theory and the advantages and disad- vantages of a life-cycle investing approach.<br><br> Portfolio theory suggests life-cycle investing can be optimal in some circumstances. Empirical work has found con icting results. Life-cycle investing is consistent in many cases with actual portfolio choices individu- als make, but some researchers question whether the protection that such funds provide against market downturns is worth the lower average returns produced by shifting assets from stocks to bonds.<br><br> References Benzoni, Luca, Pierre Collin-Dufresne, and Robert S. Goldstein. 2005.<br><br> Portfolio choice over the life-cycle in the presence of ctrickle down d labor income. NBER Working Paper No. 11247, National Bureau of Economic Research, Cambridge, MA.<br><br> Bodie, Zvi. 1995. On the risk of stocks in the long run.<br><br> Financial Analysts Journal 51(3): 18 322. 4 4 4. 2001.<br><br> Retirement investing: A new approach. Working Paper No. 2001-03, Boston University School of Management.<br><br> Bodie, Zvi, and Dwight B. Crane. 1997.<br><br> Personal investing: Advice, theory and evidence. Financial Analysts Journal 53(6): 13 323. Bodie, Zvi, Robert C.<br><br> Merton, and William F. Samuelson. 1992.<br><br> Labor supply exibility and portfolio choice in a life-cycle model. Journal of Economic Dynamics and Control 16: 427 3 449. Booth, Laurence.<br><br> 2004. Formulating retirement targets and the impact of time horizon on asset allocation. Financial Services Review 13(1): 1 3 17.<br><br> Butler, Kurt C., and Dale L. Domian. 1993.<br><br> Long-run returns on stock and bond portfolios: Implications for retirement planning. Financial Services Review 2(1): 41 3 49. Hickman, Kent, Hugh Hunter, John Byrd, John Beck, and Will Terpening.<br><br> 2001. Life-cycle investing, hold- ing periods, and risk. Journal of Portfolio Management 27(2): 101 3 111.<br><br> Ho, Kwok, Moshe Arye Milevsky, and Chris Robinson. 1994. Asset allocation, life expectancy and shortfall.<br><br> Financial Services Review 3(2): 109 3 126. 6 f Policy Brief No. 2007-02 Jagannathan, Ravi, and Narayan R.<br><br> Kocherlakota. 1996. Why should older people invest less in stocks than younger people?<br><br> Federal Reserve Bank of Minnesota Quarterly Review 20(3): 11 3 23. Lynch, Anthony, and Sinan Tan. 2004.<br><br> Labor income dynamics at business-cycle frequencies: Implications for portfolio choice. Working Paper, Stern School of Business, New York University. Malkiel, Burton.<br><br> 1990. A random walk down Wall Street. New York: W.W.<br><br> Norton & Co. Markowitz, H. 1952.<br><br> Portfolio selection. Journal of Finance 7(1): 77 3 91. Poterba, James, Joshua Rauh, Steven Venti, and David Wise.<br><br> 2006. Life-cycle asset allocation strategies and the distri- bution of 401(k) retirement wealth. NBER Working Paper No.<br><br> 11974, National Bureau of Economic Research, Cambridge, MA. Schooley, Diane K., and Debra D. Worden.<br><br> 1999. Investors 9 asset allocations versus life-cycle funds. Financial Analysts Journal (55)5: 37 3 43.<br><br> Shiller, Robert J. 2005. The life-cycle personal accounts proposal for Social Security: An evaluation.<br><br> NBER Working Paper No. 11300, National Bureau of Economic Research, Cambridge, MA. Vanguard Center for Retirement Research.<br><br> 2004. How America saves: A report on Vanguard de ned contribu- tion plans . The Vanguard Group.<br><br> Viceira, Luis. 2001. Optimal portfolio choice for long- horizon returns with non-tradable labor income.<br><br> Journal of Finance 56: 433 3 470. This brief was prepared by Dale Kintzel of the Social Security Administration. Questions about the analysis should be directed to the author at 202-358-6218.<br><br> For additional copies of this brief, e-mail email@example.com or call 202-358-6274. Social Security Administration Of ce of Policy 500 E Street, SW, 8th Floor Washington, DC 20254 SSA Publication No. 13-11702<br><br>