What if I told you that you’ve been swimming in the universe of alternative investments all your 401(k) life?

Do you break out in a cold sweat when you hear the words ‘alternative investments‘?

They sound like they come from a portion of the universe that can only be called “the danger zone.”

Red sirens are blaring. Visions of skyrocketing fiduciary liability insurance premiums dance in our heads.

It’s just not the sort of thing you signed on for. 

But, what if I told you that you’ve been swimming in the universe of alternative investments all your 401(k) life?

If you live in a typical 401(k) plan, you probably have a “stable-value” option consisting of laddered GICs. It’s sort of like a money market fund on steroids, and it’s been one of the most popular 401(k) menu choices since virtually the beginning of 401(k) plans.

Too popular, in fact. Some say the 2006 Pension Protection Act came about because too many retirement savers placed their long-term assets in short-term investments. The stable-value option represents the epitome of short-term investments.

They also represent the vanguard of alternative investments in 401(k) plans. Based on current trends, stable value funds were only the tip of the iceberg, (see “Exclusive Interview: DCALTA’s Jonathan Epstein Explains How You Might be More Familiar with Alternative Investments Than You Think,” FiduciaryNews.com, November 21, 2017). And you can include the ever-spreading bank-sponsored Collective Investment Trust among the approaching army of alternative investments.

No, “alternative” is not the same as “alien.” It is as common as a common trust fund.

Of course, in today’s markets, where investors push to get that last basis point of yield, these vehicles offer the perfect home for non-traditional asset classes and non-traditional investment styles.

And by “non-traditional” I mean in the old school sense where “traditional” connotes only stocks, bonds, and cash. “New” school types consider it unenlightened to limit yourself to this definition of “traditional” investments.

Non-traditional investments have been around for along time. They’ve always required a bit more scrutiny, as well as a healthy dose of skepticism. Still, they can have a place in a professionally managed portfolio. They aren’t limited to pushing alpha. They can be used to protect the downside. And a lot more.

One of the more interesting directions “alternative” investments are headed towards is a sort of “synthetic” portfolio designed to create a virtual pension. This is a far cry from the Wild West mystique the term “alternative” invokes.  Imagine such twists in target-date funds, or other default investment options.

Again, the key factor here is “professionally managed.” The universe of alts – and “universe” is an apt metaphor given the vast array of investment choices and strategies – is complex. It’s not something for the faint-hearted everyday retirement saver.

In a sense, it’s also not tested. That’s what’s going on now. And that’s what scares people.

But it shouldn’t. Progress requires fits and starts, trials and tribulations, and flips and flops. That all has to happen before we end up with a palatable program.

So, applaud the pioneers. Become one if you wish.

Or simply stand ready to reap the fruits of their labor. That’s how we forge into the frontier. That’s the spirit of innovation. That’s America.