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LIFE CYCLE MUTUAL FUNDS MAKE INVESTING EASY

More and more employers are offering a new option in retirement plans called life cycle investing.

A life cycle fund is the simplification and automation many investors desperately need. Think of it like the automatic rotisserie chicken oven hawked by infomercial king Ron Popeil. Set it and, for the most part, forget it.

There are two types of life cycle mutual funds -- "lifestyle" and "target date" or "target retirement."

"The appeal of both lifestyle and target retirement funds is that, with fund management companies managing allocations, investors can concentrate on other things," note Michael Porter and Lucas Garland, research analysts for Lipper Inc., in their 2005 report "Life Cycle Funds: Fit for Life."

With a lifestyle fund, an investor chooses a fund based on how much risk he or she wishes to take. The fund choices might vary from aggressive (80 percent stock) to conservative (20 percent stock) or somewhere in between. While the actual asset mix may vary from time to time, the asset allocation always remains within a specific range.

A target date fund allocates the money you invest according to a preset schedule based on your target retirement date. The longer you have until retirement, the more aggressive the fund might be because you have more time to ride the ups and downs of stocks, Porter and Garland explain.

Apparently automatic asset rebalancing is appealing to investors. Assets in life cycle funds have more than doubled since 2000, making it one of the fastest growing parts of the mutual fund world, according to the Lipper report.

At the end of December 2004, the funds held $139.7 billion in assets under management. In 2000, the figure was just $63.3 billion. There were more than 244 life cycle funds at the end of 2004 versus 205 funds the prior year, Lipper reports.

Sixty-six percent of workers not currently contributing to employer-sponsored retirement plans say they would be more likely contribute if their companies offered an investment option that automatically becomes more conservative as their retirement date approaches, according to an annual Retirement Confidence Survey conducted by the Employee Benefit Research Institute and Mathew Greenwald & Associates.

Clearly, folks want help. Most of us who put money away in a workplace retirement plan aren't sure what we are doing. Knowing how and when to rebalance your retirement account isn't easy.

As with all investment strategies, there are some pros and cons to life cycle funds. Two financial advisers weighed in on this new way of investing.

The Cons:

* Many of the funds, specifically the target date funds, use age as the overriding factor in determining how much of your money to put in stock, bonds or cash. "The concept is OK if you believe that everybody who's 30 (is) the same as everybody else who is 30," said Morris Armstrong, president of Armstrong Financial Strategies in Danbury, Conn.

"We don't believe that the risk profile of your investments is necessarily a function of age," said Nathan Gendelman, director of investments for The Family Firm in Bethesda, Md.

* Investors are likely to neglect a fund's performance because everything is automatic. "You can be enduring mediocrity," Armstrong said.

Investing in a life cycle fund doesn't mean you shouldn't keep an eye on returns. "Life cycle funds are 'funds of funds,' meaning that the assets they buy are in fact shares of other mutual funds operated by the same fund family," Porter and Garland write in their report. "This means the funds are only as good as the fund family's lineup of large-cap, small-cap, international, and bond funds. So, it is important to do some research before purchasing a life cycle fund."

* Fee overload. When you buy a life cycle fund, you pay the fees charged for the underlying funds. However, some fund companies add a charge on top of that, Lipper warns. So watch the fees, which eat into your returns.

The Pros:

* Surveys show people who participate in employer-sponsored retirement plans often don't change their asset allocations once they sign up because they just don't know what to do. Life cycle funds put the decision on how to allocate your contributions in the hands of professionals.

* Investors can avoid common mistakes such as not diversifying enough or being too conservative in their early working life. "It's a way to outsource the decision-making about your portfolio," Gendelman said.

e-mail: singletarym@washpost.com