The essential first step for retirement portfolio planning: finding the right stock/bond mix.
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By Christine Benz | 10-18-11 | 06:00 AM | Email Article

Most experts agree that your retirement portfolio's asset allocation--its mixture of stocks, bonds, and cash--will have the biggest impact on how much it grows, as well as its risk level.

Christine Benz is Morningstar's director of personal finance and author of 30-Minute Money Solutions: A Step-by-Step Guide to Managing Your Finances and the Morningstar Guide to Mutual Funds: 5-Star Strategies for Success. Follow Christine on Twitter: @christine_benz.

Unfortunately, retirement savers seeking guidance on formulating an appropriate asset allocation may have a hard time knowing where to look. Sure, you could certainly do worse than adopting Jack Bogle's simple formula: 100 minus your age equals how much you should hold in stocks. But what if you want to come at the problem with a greater sense of precision? What if your personal situation puts you outside the norm--perhaps you're lucky enough to have saved far more than you'll ever need, or you've not saved enough and are playing catch-up? 

Thankfully, you don't have to fly blind. Here are some key information sources you can turn to when crafting your own asset-allocation plan. You may find it useful to sample an array of different opinions; you're apt to find a comforting convergence among various sources of guidance on this topic. 

How the Pros Do It
Target-date funds, which are designed as one-stop investments appropriate for your retirement date, are incredibly handy for do-it-yourself investors interested in building their own portfolios. Target-date funds offer a shortcut for helping to figure out how much is appropriate for someone like you to invest in different asset classes.

Looking at target-date fund holdings is like peering into what professional managers would do with your money. Once you have a sense of how different professionals would invest, you can take the parts you like and leave what you don't. It's important to take a look at target-date offerings from a couple of different fund companies--funds for the same retirement date can vary substantially based on glide-path philosophy and types of holdings.

 Morningstar's Target-Date Fund Series reports do a good job of summarizing the glide paths, as well as the pros and cons, of various target-date series. Some target-date programs maintain very high equity allocations before and even during retirement, a stance informed by the view that longevity risk--that is, the chance that you'll outlive your assets--should outweigh concerns about short-term fluctuations in an investor's principal. 

Funds in T. Rowe Price's Retirement series, for example, generally have above-average equity weightings relative to other target-date funds in that same age band. Meanwhile, other target-date fund series have steered a more conservative, bond- and cash-heavy course, in the view that big stock weightings add more volatility than most people need or want, which in turn could lead to panic-induced selling amid stock market downturns. American Century's LIVESTRONG series, for example, is generally lighter on equities during the accumulation phase than most target-date series, though its portfolios maintain relatively higher equity weightings for those nearing or in retirement. Thus, sampling an array of opinions from target-date funds geared toward investors in your same age band can help get you in the right ballpark; Morningstar analysts' favorite series are those from T. Rowe Price, American Funds, JP Morgan, and Vanguard

Morningstar's Lifetime Allocation Indexes, informed by the research of Ibbotson Associates, provide another vantage point on the asset-allocation question. In addition to providing separate asset allocations for various time horizons, the indexes also allow customization by risk profile for each age band: conservative, moderate, and aggressive. In addition, the indexes also show suballocations for various asset classes--they recommend percentage weightings in Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities and commodities, for example.

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Christine Benz does not own shares in any of the securities mentioned above. Find out about Morningstar's editorial policies.
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