3. Your Investment Knowledge
What do you know about different investments? Have you bought or sold common stocks, purchased a corporate or government bond, or owned a mutual fund? Do you understand how diversification – owning multiple assets rather than one – affects risk and return? Is your experience limited to opening a savings account or buying your company’s stock? Do you have time to learn about investing, and the investment alternatives available to you? Depending on the structure of your 401k, there are lots of decisions to make, especially if your employer allows you to direct the investments within your account.
Most employer plans provide at least three alternatives, each featuring different risks and returns. Choices might include the following:
- Money Market Funds. This investment is considered low risk and low reward, with investments in short-term Treasury notes and Federally guaranteed Bank Certificates of Deposit. There is virtually no investment risk, but the return is usually equivalent to the inflation rate. Any money you think you’ll need within the next year should be invested in a low risk asset where there’s little risk of loss.
- Bond Funds. A managed fund of corporate or longer-maturity government bonds is generally considered low to medium risk, with low to medium reward. While bond funds lack investment risk (the bonds are paid when they come due), they do bear interest rate risk. In other words, bond price varies conversely with the interest rate over time. When interest rates rise, bond prices fall so that new and previously issued bonds have parity in the marketplace. This means a bond with a face value of $1,000 and a 4% coupon would sell at $667 if interest rates rose to 6%, even though it’s paid at full face value when it matures. Conversely, a bond with a 6% interest rate would sell at $1,500 if interest rates fell to 4%, even though the bond is redeemed at maturity for $1,000. These assets are perfect for reducing the overall risk of your retirement holdings, and should represent an increased percentage of your total portfolio in the five years leading up to retirement.
- Balanced Funds. While balanced funds carry more risk than bond funds due to their common stock exposure, balanced funds also offer greater opportunity for return. As the percentage of bonds within your portfolio rises, the volatility of your portfolio is dampened. Most balanced funds include a diversified portfolio of mature U.S. large-company common stocks. These companies are usually well-managed, with long histories of profitability. Their size makes major loss unlikely, just as extraordinary profit is also unlikely (it’s easier to double $1 million in earnings than $100 million in earnings). Balanced funds typically earn at a rate of 2% to 3%, plus inflation, and should be the core holding of most retirement portfolios.
- Growth Funds. Composed entirely of stock investments, growth fund portfolios typically vary according to the specialty of the fund manager. They can be industry-specific (e.g. technology), a particular stage of company growth (e.g. emerging markets), or focused on company size (e.g. small cap growth). Growth funds are more volatile than balanced funds – their price varies more day-to-day – so they have higher risk of loss, but greater potential for reward. A growth fund should provide a return of 4% to 5% over inflation to compensate for its increased risk.