In a market environment of muted performance, squeezing out every additional percentage point of incremental return becomes ever more vital. And a new research report suggests there’s actually a fairly elegant, easy and lower-risk way to pocket better performance. All it takes is a willingness to seek out help.
According to a study of eight mondo 401(k) plans with 425,000 participants and $25 billion in assets, folks who tapped into some level of professional portfolio allocation assistance outperformed DIYers by an average of 2.93 percentage points from 2006 through 2010. That whopping differential is net of all fees.
Below is a chart from the joint survey conducted by benefits consulting firm Aon Hewitt, and 401(k) advice provider Financial Engines. Sure, they’ve both got a big dog in this hunt – but the data sure is compelling. During the tumultuous 2006-2010 stretch, getting some professional assistance paid dividends across all age groups:
401(k) Portfolio Returns 2006-2010: DIY v. ADVICE SEEKERS
And that can potentially translate into some serious extra change come retirement time. Aon Hewitt and Financial Engines figure that a 45-year old help-seeker who earns that extra 2.93 percentage points on a $10,000 investment could end up with 70 percent more at age 65: $71,400 vs. $42,100.
Help in Many Forms
The Aon Hewitt/Financial Engines report used a broad definition of Help, including any 401(k) participant who:
- Owns a Target Date Fund. TDFs qualify as help because you’re handing over the keys to the fund company to figure out the appropriate mix of underlying funds to deliver optimal risk/reward given your investment horizon.
- Accessed an Online Help Tool. If a participant took a spin through an online allocation or advice tool hosted by the 401(k), that counted as help as well. Participants must have used an online tool in the past 12 months to be included in the Help cohort. But the survey didn’t suss out whether folks who used a tool actually followed through and followed the advice.
- Signed on for a Managed Account. A growing number of 401(k) plans now offer professional individual management advice; typically for an extra fee.
Getting the Better of Your Emotions
Signing on for some form of professional advice pays off in large part because it strips much of the emotion out of the investing process. When you have a target date fund, you don’t have to worry about how to allocate among the major asset classes, and just as vital, you’ve got automatic rebalancing working for you. Let’s face it, buying more of an asset that has underperformed and selling off some of an asset that has had relative outperformance – the very definition of rebalancing – can be one stiff emotional challenge.
Moreover, knowing you’ve offloaded allocation decisions to some other power – the TDF fund, the managed account, or the infinite Monte Carlo simulations that form the basis of online advice-can be a huge assist to not panic in times of market turmoil. That’s been especially important the past few years. If you bailed out on stocks in the depths of the 2008-2009 bear market, you likely missed out on a good chunk of the fast and furious market rebound that began in March 2009. More recently, if you fled to the sidelines this past August and September amid the extreme market turmoil that sent the stock market down nearly 20% from its May highs, you ran the risk of still being on the sidelines during the recent 11% snap back.
One of the biggest reasons advice in any form pays off is that it keeps you from making mistakes. Over the past few years, the mistakes have come from getting too cautious amid the turmoil. But it wasn’t so long ago – yep, I am going to force you to remember what you and your portfolio were doing in 1999 and 2000-that many of us were making the mistake of being too optimistic. At its core, advice adds value to your portfolio by helping you stay more glued to a long-term diversified allocation strategy. And the payoff is not just in excess return. Interestingly, the Aon Hewitt/Financial Engines report found that not only did DIYers underperform during the 2006-2010 stretch, they also took on more risk in the process. Ouch. A big culprit here was the fact that DIYers tended to have too much of their portfolios riding on company stock. That’s just the sort of ill-advised allocation decision that any form of advice would circumvent or red-flag.