The Role of the TSP I Fund in Thrift Savings Plan Allocation Strategy

When you see stories about extraordinary growth in China, India and other burgeoning economic superpowers, you no doubt assume that you are participating in that growth if you are invested in the Thrift Savings Plan’s I Fund. Unfortunately, that is not the case because the TSP I Fund is badly flawed as the only option which government employees and service members have for international exposure in their Thrift Savings Plan. There are still some circumstances in which the TSP I Fund will fit into your TSP strategy, but it is much more complicated than picking a percentage to allocate so you have “some international exposure.”

Pan Am - TSP I FundThe TSP I Fund (sometimes referred to as the TSP International Fund) tracks the MSCI EAFE Index which was created in 1969 to track the largest stocks in Europe, Australasia, and the Far East (EAFE). Back in 1969 when international investing was just becoming a reality, the dominant international markets were in Europe and Japan. Unfortunately for Thrift Savings Plan investors, the index hasn’t changed since it was created, and European markets still comprise about 70% of the index followed by Japanese markets at 22%, for a total of 92% of the entire index. Those are both still big markets, but they don’t have the growth of China, India, Brazil and the rest of the engines of global growth in the developing world which are completely excluded from the TSP I Fund. And to make things worse, the index tracked by the TSP I Fund includes such basket cases as Italy, Portugal, and Spain.

TSP I Fund_-_country weightsThe TSP I Fund has a place in my TSP allocation strategy, but that determination is based on a different business cycle than the US business cycle which we use to determine our other Thrift Savings Plan allocations. In fact, it relies on a combination of multiple business cycles: the major European countries and Japanese cycles. A lot of TSP talk superficially revolves around the need to have international exposure, but it very seldom goes any deeper to examine what international exposure the TSP I Fund actually provides.

The MSCI EAFE Index is weighted by market capitalization, which means that stocks are purchased for the TSP I Fund’s portfolio in proportion to how large the companies are. That means that the index is skewed strongly towards a few very large companies – in fact 15% of all the shares held in the TSP I Fund are from just ten companies. Which means smaller cap companies are almost completely excluded, and the TSP I Fund will perform best when both Europe and Japan are in the Mid (Growth) Phase of the business cycle. For the purpose of determining the best TSP fund combination at any given time, think of the TSP I Fund as a C Fund for Japan, the UK, Germany, France, and Switzerland.

The TSP I Fund as a Buy-and-Hold Candidate

The MSCI EAFE Index was created to track developed markets under the theory that they are more mature and stable than the newer markets, but Vanguard rates its Developed Markets Index Fund (a mutual fund which is virtually indistinguishable from the TSP I Fund) as “High Risk”. Take a look at the volatility it has displayed since 2001:

TSP I Fund performance since 2001

Anyone who thinks that the TSP I Fund is a buy-and-hold-forever candidate should take a look at the following chart – if you had put your money to work in the I Fund in 2008 you would still be down about 22% for your trouble (as of July 2013 when this post was written).

I Fund
I Fund

And comparing the buy-and-hold-forever performance of the TSP I Fund to the other funds (data from 8/31/1990 to 07/17/2015), take a look at the hypothetical performance of $10,000 invested in each Thrift Savings Plan fund continuously for the past 25 years:

  • TSP S Fund: $143,930
  • TSP C Fund: $111, 430
  • TSP F Fund: $  47,770
  • TSP I Fund:  $  42,710
  • TSP G Fund: $  32,850

Mutual Fund and ETF Equivalents to the TSP I Fund

For anyone interested in investing in non-TSP equivalents to the TSP I FUND, Vanguard has its low expense Developed Markets Index mutual fund (ticker symbol VDVIX) and an ETF (exchange traded fund) which track the MSCI EAFE Index (ticker symbol VEA), both of which are excellent proxies for the TSP I Fund. iShares also has an EAFE ETF as well (ticker symbol EFA), but when last I checked its expenses were triple that of the Vanguard ETF so there would be no reason to purchase that product unless that was the only option in a 401K.

Recommended Reading for International Investing

If you want to read more about international investing specifically, the only book on my shelf or Kindle which I can think of worth recommending is Own the Globe: How Smart Investors Create Global Portfolios, by Aaron Anderson. If you know of another worth taking a look at, please let us know by sharing in the comments below.

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7 thoughts on “The Role of the TSP I Fund in Thrift Savings Plan Allocation Strategy”

  1. Just found your website have been trying to manage wife fund for last 2 years averaging 2% because of complexity of market and funds been reading your site daily waiting for update.Great advice and knowledge read posts on bonds and i fund really clarified them for me. thxs Paul

  2. Wonderful breakdown of the I Fund. I wish I understood how you figure the I Fund is still down 22% if you had invested in it in 2008. How do you do the math on those numbers? Second, do you have any articles like this one that breakdown what the other funds are for us newbies? I really appreciate you taking the time to share your opinion.

    1. In fairness to the I Fund, that 22% figure was from when I originally wrote that post back in 2013. I’ll make a note of that above.

      For looking at Thrift Savings Plan fund performance over certain ranges I like

      There is a fair amount of discussion of the various funds in the three “Getting Started” posts on the front page. And I go into some detail on the TSP G Fund and F Fund in the F Fund vs G Fund in TSP Allocation post.

  3. Was wondering if you might discuss some of the recent changes to the I fund coming up? It seems to address a lot of your issues in this post. Was that another reason for you to tilt 50% to the I fund? I have just started going back into it now as I am needing more space to invest international. I had hesitated in the past as it lacked so much diversification.

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