TIAA-CREF Lifestyle Conservative (TSCLX), August 2015

By David Snowball

Objective and strategy

The fund seeks long-term total return, consisting of both current income and capital appreciation. It is a “fund of funds” that invests in the low-cost Institutional Class shares of other TIAA-CREF funds. It is designed for investors targeting a conservative risk-return profile. In general, 40% of the fund’s assets are invested in stocks and 60% in bonds. The managers can change those allocations by as much as 10% up or down depending upon current market conditions and outlook.

Adviser

TIAA-CREF. It stands for “Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association – College Retirement Equities Fund,” which tells you a lot about them. They were founded in 1918 to help secure the retirements of college teachers; their original backers were Andrew Carnegie and his Carnegie Foundation. Their mission eventually broadened to serving people who work in the academic, research, medical and cultural fields. More recently, their funds became available to the general public. TIAA-CREF manages almost $900 billion dollars for its five million investors. Because so much of their business is with highly-educated professionals concerned about their retirement, TIAA-CREF focuses on fundamentally sound strategies with little trendiness or flash and on keeping expenses as lower as possible. 70% of their investment products have earned four- or five-star ratings from Morningstar and the company is consistently rated as one of America’s best employers.

Manager

John Cunniff and Hans Erickson, who have managed the fund since its inception.

Management’s stake in the fund

We generally look for funds where the managers have placed a lot of their own money to work beside yours. Mssrs. Cunniff and Erickson each have $500,001 – $1,000,000 invested in the fund, which qualifies as “a lot.”

Opening date

December 9, 2011. Many of the funds in which the managers invest are much older than that.

Minimum investment

$2,500. That is reduced to $100 if you sign up for an automatic investing plan.

Expense ratio

0.87% on $115 million in assets, as of July 2015. That’s about average for funds of this type.

Comments

Lifestyle Conservative offers many of the same attractions as Vanguard STAR (VGSTX) but does so with a more conservative asset allocation. Here are three arguments on its behalf.

First, the fund invests in a way that is broadly diversified and pretty conservative. 40% of its money is invested in stocks, 40% in high-quality bonds and the last 20% in short-term bonds. That’s admirably cautious. They then take measured risks within their various investments (for example, their stock portfolio is more tilted toward international stocks and emerging markets stocks than are their peers) to help boost returns.

Second, TIAA-CREF is very good. There are two sorts of funds, those which simply buy all of the stocks or bonds in a particular index without trying to judge whether they’re good or bad (these are called “passive” funds) and those whose managers try to invest in only the best stocks or bonds (called “active” funds). TSCLX invests in a mix of the two with active funds receiving about 90% of the cash. CREF’s management teams tend to be pretty stable (the average tenure is close to nine years); most managers handle just one or two funds and most invest heavily (north of $100,000 per manager per fund) in their funds. CREF and its funds operate with far lower expenses than its peers, on average, 0.43% per year for funds investing primarily in U.S. stocks. Even their most expensive fund charges 40% less than their industry peers. Every dollar not spent on running the fund is a dollar that remains in your account.

Third, Lifestyle Conservative is a very easy way to build a very well-diversified portfolio.  Lifestyle Conservative builds its portfolio around 15 actively-managed and three passively-managed TIAA-CREF funds.  They are:

  Which invests in
Large-Cap Growth   large companies in new and emerging areas of the economy that appear poised for growth
Large-Cap Value   Large companies, mostly in the US, whose stock is undervalued based on an evaluation of their potential worth
Enhanced Large-Cap Growth Index   Quantitative models try to help it put extra money into the most attractive stocks in the US Large Cap Growth index; it tries to sort of “tilt” a traditional index
Enhanced Large-Cap Value Index   Quantitative models try to help it put extra money into the most attractive stocks in the US Large Cap Value index
Mid-Cap Growth   Medium-sized US companies with strong earnings growth
Mid-Cap Value   Temporarily undervalued mid-sized companies
Growth & Income   Large US companies which are paying healthy dividends or buying back their stock
Small-Cap Equity   smaller domestic companies across a wide range of sectors, growth rates and valuations
International Equity   Stocks of stable and growing non-US companies
International Opportunities   Stocks of foreign firms that might have great potential but a limited track record
Emerging Markets Equity   Stocks of firms located in emerging markets such as India and China
Enhanced International Equity Index Quantitative models try to help it put extra money into the most attractive stocks in the International Equity index
Global Natural Resources   Firms around the world involved in energy, metals, agriculture and other commodities
Bond   High quality US bonds
Bond Plus   70% investment grade bonds and 30% spicier fare, such as emerging markets bonds or high-yield debt
High-Yield   Mostly somewhat riskier, higher-yielding bonds for US and foreign corporations
Short-Term Bond   Short-term, investment grade US government and corporate bonds
Money Market   Ultra-safe, lower-returning CDs and such

Bottom Line

Lifestyle Conservative has been a fine performer since launch. It has returned 7.5% annually over the past three years. That’s about 2% per year better than average, which places it in the top 20% of all conservative hybrid funds. While it trails more venturesome funds such as Vanguard STAR in good markets, it holds up substantially better than they do in falling markets.  That combination led Morningstar to award it four stars, their second-highest rating.

Fund website

TIAA-CREF Lifestyle Conservative homepage. From there you can download the fund’s fact sheet, a two page .pdf document which gives you updated information on what the fund has been investing in and how it’s doing. From there it’s easy to open a mutual fund account and set up your AIP.

If you’ve got an iPhone, you can manage your account with their TIAA-CREF Savings Simplifier app. If instead, you sport an Android device (all the cool kids do!), head over to the Play store and check out the TIAA-CREF app there. It doesn’t offer all the functionality of the iOS app, but it does come with much higher customer ratings.

© Mutual Fund Observer, 2015. All rights reserved. The information here reflects publicly available information current at the time of publication. For reprint/e-rights contact us.
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About David Snowball

David Snowball, PhD (Massachusetts). Cofounder, lead writer. David is a Professor of Communication Studies at Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois, a nationally-recognized college of the liberal arts and sciences, founded in 1860. For a quarter century, David competed in academic debate and coached college debate teams to over 1500 individual victories and 50 tournament championships. When he retired from that research-intensive endeavor, his interest turned to researching fund investing and fund communication strategies. He served as the closing moderator of Brill’s Mutual Funds Interactive (a Forbes “Best of the Web” site), was the Senior Fund Analyst at FundAlarm and author of over 120 fund profiles. David lives in Davenport, Iowa, and spends an amazing amount of time ferrying his son, Will, to baseball tryouts, baseball lessons, baseball practices, baseball games … and social gatherings with young ladies who seem unnervingly interested in him.