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Are Most Investors Better Off with All-In-One Funds?

A reader writes in, asking:

“Investing includes an emotional and psychological component for many individuals. One can suggest a portfolio with proper allocation, but to maintain it, especially with major changes in the stock or bond market may be a difficult matter to actually implement. Would some or most investors be better off with a fund such as a Vanguard Life Strategy Fund with an appropriate allocation rather than the individual components, given that those all in one funds appear to avoid both the euphoric highs, as well as the depressing lows of individual funds?”

If we’re assuming there’s no difference in original allocation (i.e., the person would start off holding either the LifeStrategy fund or an identical allocation via individual index funds), then the upside of an all-in-one fund is that it’s easier to stick with the allocation plan. That has certainly been my personal experience since switching to a LifeStrategy fund 6 years ago, and I have heard from many people over the last several years who have had similar experiences. Conversely, to date I have never heard from anybody who switched to an all-in-one fund and found it harder to stay the course afterward.

Part of this is due to what the reader above mentioned — the fact that an all-in-one fund somewhat camouflages the volatility of the higher-risk holdings by combining them with lower-risk holdings.

Part of it is also due to the simple fact that, with an all-in-one fund, you know everything is taken care of, so you don’t sign in to your account as often. And if you aren’t signed in to your account, you’re obviously not making any changes.

I have also heard a few people say that they found it easier to stick with an all-in-one fund because they knew that the allocation had been designed by a professional. (Though presumably such a benefit would also accrue to people using live advisors or robo-advisors.)

In other words, I’m very confident that many people have an easier time sticking with their portfolio when it consists of an all-in-one fund rather than a DIY selection of funds. And Morningstar’s data on “investor returns” seems to indicate that such ease of implementation does in fact lead to better results, on average. (See this recent study or this article from 2015, for example.)

Of course, all-in-one funds do have some downsides relative to an identical allocation via individual funds. Specifically:

  1. They have slightly higher expense ratios than individual index funds, and
  2. They can cause inefficiencies to arise when other accounts are involved.

For example, all-in-one funds are tax-inefficient if the portfolio includes a taxable brokerage account. Or, if one of the accounts involved is a 401(k) in which there’s only one asset class with a low-cost fund, it may be possible to significantly reduce overall costs by picking that one fund and filling in the rest of the desired allocation elsewhere. Such a plan would be disrupted by the use of an all-in-one fund.

But if we change the original question slightly and we remove the assumption that the DIY investor uses the same underlying initial asset allocation, then I think it’s very clear that most people are better served by an all-in-one fund than by a self-created, self-managed portfolio. Many people who build their own portfolios end up with a mess — overlapping funds, dangerously high allocations to a single stock, funds selected purely on 5-year performance figures, etc.

Most all-in-one funds are going to be quite a bit better than that.

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