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If you’re unhappy with your 401(k), rest easy… you’re not alone. In fact, on August 19, over 60,000 employees joined up and filed a class action lawsuit against their employer, Morgan Stanley. Their reason: questionably managed and poorly performing 401(k) plans.

It’s one thing to ask workers to stay late or forget to restock the break room. Messing with their retirement plans, though? That’s a whole different animal.

The filed suit alleges that Morgan Stanley, a company with over $8 billion in 401(k) assets, chose to invest employees’ money in its own funds in order to maximize profits and benefit itself. Using only in-house investment funds would have been a questionable practice on its own. The unfortunate and compounding fact, though, is that these funds have also been grossly underperforming.

In fact, its Morgan Stanley Institutional Small Cap Growth Fund IS Class was 99% less profitable than other small cap growth funds in 2014. It didn’t get much better in 2015, where the fund performed worse than 95% of the others.

So, why would the company continue to toss 401(k) funds into obviously poor choices such as these? Self-promotion and siphoning profits for themselves are two potential reasons. The class action suit last week alleges that these were indeed the motivating factors, but it gets better.

The lawsuit also claims that on top of these 401(k) plans earning less than they could have with 99% of the other options out there, the costs were also exorbitant in comparison. It accuses Morgan Stanley of charging its own employees higher mutual fund fees than it charged outside investors.

These fees are also higher than those that other funds on the market currently carry. For instance, Morgan Stanley was apparently charging a fee of .98%, whereas a similar fund from Vanguard charged a mere .07%. The effects of this percent difference on a retirement account could be astronomical!

Of course, this would not only be shady business practice, but is potentially illegal. The federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) of 1974 places a fiduciary obligation on companies to act in the best interests of the plan participants. Managing funds in a way that primarily benefits the company, instead, is a potential violation.

Seeing how 401(k) plans play such a large role in the retirement savings of today’s working class, this sort of practice would have detrimental effects on the future financial security of each of their employees. Most of us pay into retirement plans and give blind faith that our employers are managing our money with our best interests in mind. Morgan Stanley, it would seem, has let a lot of people down.

It will be interesting to see how this suit plays out in court. It has the potential to be a harsh reminder of companies’ ethical and legal obligations to their workers. The class action suit is seeking damages of $150 million on behalf of its approximate 60,000 proposed participants. Morgan Stanley has not yet responded to requests for comments on the suit.

Have you worked for Morgan Stanley? Leave a comment to let us know your thoughts on their 401(k) plan and the class action lawsuit.

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Illustration of a woman confronting different paths forward

iStockphoto illustration

Saving for retirement is a long game, but the idea of preparing for something decades away is counterintuitive for many of us.

However, consistent saving is crucial for retirement planning. Here’s expert advice for how to prepare in your 30s, 40s and 50s.

Your 30s

Saving for retirement really should begin in earnest during your 20s. But with the average college debt now soaring to more than $35,000, saving money early is out of reach for many recent graduates.

In your 30s, your career and income likely will grow but so will your financial responsibilities, which makes this a critical time to kick-start your retirement savings. If you didn’t begin in the previous decade, ramp up your savings and put away at least 10 percent of your earnings each pay period into a company-sponsored 401(k), traditional IRA or a Roth IRA that you open on your own. Also take advantage of any company match to maximize your retirement savings.

“The younger you start, the better,” says Bruce Elfenbein, a retirement planning expert and president of SecuRetirement Incorporated in South Florida. “There’s no substitute for compound interest and the effect it has. It’s incredible how a small contribution can turn into a great deal of money down the road.”

Elfenbein says you also should sign up for a permanent life insurance policy, establish an emergency fund and save four to six months worth of expenses. He recommends a money market account for this purpose, because it often pays a higher interest rate than a typical savings account.

Your 40s

In your 40s, it’s crucial to focus on increasing your contributions and the best way to do this is to pay off any debt.

Student loan and mortgage debt is one thing, but high-interest credit card debt can cripple your long-term financial plans. Pay off as much of it as you can and reallocate these funds to retirement. Also spend more time managing your portfolio. Talk to a financial planner and review your investments and savings to ensure your money is in the right vehicles and aligns with a level of risk you’re comfortable with.

Elfenbein says it’s important to put money in vehicles, like a fixed-index annuity, that will give you secure and guaranteed income. A fixed-index annuity provides tax-deferred growth and can protect you from downturns in the market. Anything left over should be invested to combat taxes and inflation, Elfenbein adds.

In your 40s, also consider how much you need to cover your health care expenses in retirement. If you haven’t already, open a Health Savings Account (HSA) to save for this cost. HSAs are a great option (link to previous article here) because any contributions you make are tax deductible and roll over from year-to-year.

Your 50s

In your 50s, your retirement strategy should “shift from accumulation to preservation,” Elfenbein says. People tend to become more risk-averse as they age, and this is no different as you approach retirement. In this decade, stay away from variable products and shift more of your money away from stocks and into secure vehicles like high-quality bonds or annuities.

Also use the savings options the government provides — like a 401(k) or IRA — to make catch-up contributions that will maximize your retirement income. In 2016, you can contribute $6,000 above IRS limits for 401(k) plans.

If you’ve already started funding an HSA, look into insurance plans for long-term care, which can help cover your ongoing health care, assisted living or nursing home costs later in life.

When it comes to retirement planning, the main question you need to ask is what kind of lifestyle do you want to live in your later years? If you expect to maintain or exceed your current standard of living, you need to save more — and start early. Being consistent and actively managing your portfolio will pave the way for a secure retirement.

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After the stock market closed on Friday, my portfolio was at an all-time high. That was likely also the case for a lot of investors living in the United States who are similar to me: earning income, investing in the stock market with a buy-and-hold strategy for the future, and leaving money invested during the stickier economic times.

Continuing to invest in the stock market throughout the recent recession was an essential part of long-term success with investing. Not all investors had this luxury, as the recession hit hard. Many workers lost their job and their income at the same time investing in the stock market was crucial for eventually receiving those promised long-term average returns.

According to a new survey, more than half of Americans don’t own stocks or stock-based investments like mutual funds.

But should this be surprising? Should stock owners look at those who do not own stocks with judgment or from a perspective of superiority? Is the lack of ubiquitous investing a result of ineffective financial education?

CNN calls the data reflective of an “alarming trend for America’s financial future” and for some reason compares the number of stock market investors with the number of daily coffee drinkers. After all, if Americans simply invested in stocks with the money spent on daily coffee drinks, the country would supposedly be wealthier — and sleepier.

Despite the proliferation of the 401(k) retirement plan as a replacement for employer pensions and the increasing tendency for employers to automatically enroll new employees in 401(k) plans, stock market investing still hasn’t penetrated the psyche of a majority of those living and working in the United States.

Most auto-enrollment settings will default to a money market index, probably because the employer doesn’t want the liability of choosing a riskier investment without the required education and an opt-in confirmation for investing in the stock market. There is also a view that the 401(k) plan was flawed from the start, giving a huge cash cow to Wall Street when millions of employees throughout the United States could be enrolled in programs that generate high fees for the financial industry.

This is not the right time to have this discussion.

The overall conversation in society about finances changes with the tenor of the times. From 2008 to 2010 or so, the idea of frugality had something of a renaissance. Commentators and financial experts extolled the virtues of saving money, being prepared for emergencies, and living life frugally. Let’s cut unnecessary expenses like cable television and get used to accepting any job available. When unemployment is high, we can question the value of higher education, even though the data always show that more education leads to lower unemployment and higher lifetime income.

During that recession, those Americans who didn’t save money during the better times were judged as poor managers of their own finances. Money management was now cool, with Mint.com and mobile apps for couponing rising to prominence.

Since that time, the stock market has skyrocketed, with the S&P 500 increasing 186.2% since March 6, 2009. Now commentators are criticizing Americans for not being invested in stocks at that time to take advantage of the best buying opportunities we might see for decades — at the same time the country was reeling in unemployment.

March 6 represented the bottom of the market as measured by the vast stock market index. But you wouldn’t have known that the future for stocks was so bright if you looked at what the media was reporting. Here’s the New York Times on March 6, 2009:

As government data revealed that 651,000 more jobs disappeared in February, a sense took hold that growing joblessness may reflect a wrenching restructuring of the American economy.

The unemployment rate surged to 8.1 percent, from 7.6 percent in January, its highest level in a quarter-century. In key industries — manufacturing, financial services and retail — layoffs have accelerated so quickly in recent months as to suggest that many companies are abandoning whole areas of business.

“These jobs aren’t coming back,” said John E. Silvia, chief economist at Wachovia in Charlotte, N.C. “A lot of production either isn’t going to happen at all, or it’s going to happen somewhere other than the United States. There are going to be fewer stores, fewer factories, fewer financial services operations. Firms are making strategic decisions that they don’t want to be in their businesses.”

Most economists now assume American fortunes cannot improve before the last months of the year…

The monthly snapshot of the national employment picture revealed an even bleaker picture as the government revised upward the job losses in December and January. The economy has shed at least 650,000 jobs for three straight months, the worst decline in percentage terms over that length of time since 1975…

“The people who do what I do in the Detroit area are a dime a dozen,” said Kim Allgeyer, 46, a machine toolmaker in Westland, Mich., who was laid off in January from a company that makes assembly lines for the automakers. Unable to find another full-time job, he is subsisting on day labor and one-week stints for contractors. “Who’s going to put me to work?” he asked. “Where’s the work at? It’s just a great big black hole.”

Much the same can be said for financial services, which gave up 44,000 jobs in February…

Retailers are shuttering stores as the era of easy money fueled by rising house prices and abundant credit gives way to a period in which millions of households are forced to confine their spending to their paychecks…

This reflected the general feeling in the United States. The future looked grim, and the only people who were investing when the outlook seemed to be so bad were those who had the fortitude (and the money) to keep investing throughout the downturn.

And now, we’re in the opposite position. I wouldn’t be quick to call the stock market’s position today a historic high, but we have had the benefit of a good bull market in stocks since March 6, 2009. The conversation has changed.

We’re not asking, “Why weren’t you saving money and watching your wallet these past several years?” We are asking, “Why haven’t you been investing in the stock market these past several years?”

In fact, this is what the new survey asked respondents. Among the majority of Americans who are not invested in stocks right now, more than half say they don’t have the money. Maybe this is true. There are still many people in the United States without jobs, many living paycheck-to-paycheck, many focusing on affording the basic necessities of life without putting their existence in jeopardy.

But there are also many who just don’t prioritize investing in stocks because the recession taught them that they need to prioritize saving and paying down debt over risky investments. Perhaps they got burned in the recession and don’t want the same thing to happen — another temporary recession in my lifetime is inevitable.

Now that the stock market completed its bounce back to former highs, the media wants to encourage more investing in the stock market. Reporters and financial experts couldn’t take that approach in 2009 without alienating the vast majority of readers who were struggling financially during the recession. Today, the surveys are about who is investing in the stock market (and those who aren’t are missing out). A few years ago, the surveys were about who is saving a good percentage of their income (and those who weren’t were missing out).

I can’t tell the future, but I do know this: When the world is telling you to invest in stocks, be cautious; when the world is telling you to be cautious, look for opportunities.

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Best Buy, the big box retailer that most shoppers have abandoned sometime in the last decade and a half in favor of Amazon.com, announced better-than-expected earnings for the last three months of 2014, which includes the all-important holiday season.

The announcement sent the financial media into a frenzy, as many had all but dismissed Best Buy, even after positive results from the third quarter of 2014. To exemplify Best Buy’s performance and overall sentiment at that time, the Motley Fool presented this five-year chart, comparing Best Buy’s stock price changes over that particular time to the performance of the S&P 500, a popular benchmark for stocks.

Here we have a stock that returned -10.9% while the rest of the stock market returned a cumulative 87.35%.

When it comes to the stock market and companies that have public stock available to trade, everyone in the industry including the journalists would prefer if you just look at the charts and make decisions based on the data they choose to show. It’s all in the charts.

And by “all” I mean lies and manipulation, hidden in the “truth” of absolute numbers.

The visual implication with this chart is that Best Buy is a company to keep out of your portfolio. Unless Well, there are some who believe an underperforming stock is a good bargain, if they feel there is some inherent value that the rest of the market is ignoring — a highly unlikely situation. That’s not the impression a reader would get from the article that accompanies the chart.

Compare the chart above with one released today by CNN Money on the occasion of Best Buy’s most recent announcement.

This chart from CNN Money, comparing Best Buy’s stock with an exchange-traded fund that represents the retail industry (XRT), begins tracking the comparison on some undefined date in 2012 and boldly announces a conclusion based on these cherry-picked data.

Maybe everyone was wrong about Best Buy after all, and not only does the retailer’s expectation-beating performance for the latter half of 2014 signal that the company is not focused on the past, and is not depending on what is becoming an antiquated model of shopping for technology, but it has also been a good investment all along!

Well, just for fun, I made my own chart with a comparison between BBY and XRT.

This chart, as accurate as the other charts above, clearly shows that Best Buy (blue line in the chart) has been a bad investment at the same time CNN Money tries to show it has been a good investment. Over this period of time, the stock has returned -8.16% while the retail sector (red line in the chart) returned a positive 16.26% overall.

You can as easily and inaccurately draw whatever conclusions you like from my set of data (aided by Google Finance’s charting facility) as you may draw from CNN Money’s chart. “Best Buy has been better buy than other retail stocks” — but not for customers who invest at times that would invalidate that conclusion!

In fact, if you bought Best Buy stock on the day The Street discussed Best Buy’s third quarter results from 2014 and held that stock until yesterday, the investment would have grown 8.68%, compared with 8.90% for the retail sector measured by XRT. Marginally worse than the industry — and a bad sign for a company whose outlook was more positive.

I’m not accusing anyone of lying. But it’s easy and simple for the media to design “accurate and truthful” stock market charts that show almost whatever they want in order to support the conclusion on which any particular writer has already decided. The visual charts have more power to convince people of an opinion than they probably should have, thanks to their ease of being manipulated and their immediate communication of a message.

Let’s go back a little farther in Best Buy’s performance history. When Best Buy announced its results for the second quarter of 2014, its performance was worse than expected. Here’s what Fortune Magazine had to say at that time:

Revenue dropped 4% to $8.9 billion for the quarter ended Aug. 2, worse than the $8.98 billion projected by analysts surveyed by Bloomberg. Domestic same-store sales dropped 2%, while they fell 6.7% in international markets. Both declines were worse than what Best Buy reported in the year-ago period.

Best Buy has faced a tough challenge from online retailers, which have reported higher sales growth than brick-and-mortar stores. Online purveyors like Amazon.com also provide customers greater clarity about where to get the best deals for the latest gadgets.

Here’s what you do when you run a public company. When you beat the analysts’ predictions, explain how your good management and leadership resulted in success. When your company doesn’t perform as well as expected, explain how forces beyond your control (systemic failure, market trends, government regulations, etc.) prevented success.

How do you reconcile performance in one good quarter with an analysis that explained bad performance in a previous quarter? In Best Buy’s case, did people start seeing Amazon.com’s dominance as just a phase? Is online shopping just a fad, good enough for day-to-day purchases, but when the importance of holiday shopping is clear, consumers start wandering around big box stores? Now that Best Buy has had two positive quarters, is it finally in a position where it can stop adapting to a changing consumer culture?

Imagine how things would sound if companies reversed their attribution theory, if they took credit for short-term failures and blamed others for short-term success?

  • “We performed worse than the market’s expectations this quarter because our CEO failed to lead the company through changing consumer trends.”
  • “We are excited about new tax incentives that have allowed us to show a profit in our financial records when we otherwise would have lost money.”

Who would invest in a company whose public relations department said these things?

There’s a kernel of truth to everything, but picking which truths apply to any particular time period’s stock price performance is pure guesswork. Investors continue to read the financial media’s commentary and make decisions based on the advice, explicit or implicit, therein.

Wall Street analysts do work hard, as do the journalists who make sense of an interpret those analyses. The system keeps a fair amount of individuals employed — but they are employed in the entertainment industry.

The best thing any consumer can do it keep the following in mind:

If you see a stock market chart, someone is trying to manipulate you and your opinions.

Just for fun, here’s another chart that compares Best Buy’s performance since roughly the beginning of XRT’s existence in 2006. Best Buy looks like a pretty big loser today.

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Robert Kiyosaki Gives Readers a Second Chance

by Luke Landes
Robert Kiyosaki [via YouTube]

Over the years, I haven’t been too kind to the best-selling author, Robert Kiyosaki. He’s certainly built a successful empire, and a large community people respect him for his business acumen, his willingness to try or to appear to try to help others, and his advice. However, I’ve always found his advice thin at best […]

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Who Benefits From 529 Plans, the Middle Class or the Wealthy?

by Luke Landes
Child in college

When I first began reading that President Obama was considering reducing the tax benefits for savers who make use of 529 plans and other education savings accounts to reduce the cost of education-related expenses, I was surprised. It has been my understanding that 529 plans, all though I do not have one, are intended to […]

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Is It Time to Invest in Oil? Here’s What I Did.

by Luke Landes
Standard Oil

At the beginning of the year, I joined another investing challenge. This was sponsored by Motif Investing, who provided me and several other financial writers and bloggers $500 to invest in strategies each of us would choose. Like last year’s Grow Your Dough competition, this is a relatively short time horizon for me. In 2014, […]

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Final Update: Grow Your Dough Throwdown

by Luke Landes
Grow Your Dough Throwdown

Throughout the last year, I’ve been participating in a friendly competition among friends. We each placed $1,000 in an investing account (or multiple investing accounts) at the beginning of the year, chose an investing strategy, and tracked progress throughout the year. I gave the initial details in the beginning of 2014. My strategy was to […]

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When Money Is Scarce: Forced Frugality and Bad Decisions

by Luke Landes
Empty Bucket

I’ll be honest. When the idea for this article struck me late last night, I had a definitive idea of how I was going to address the topic of conservation mode. But the clarity of day may have changed what I think about the idea. Throughout my life, I’ve been working with scarce resources. Now, […]

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Is Acorns the Next Best App for Investing?

by Luke Landes
Acorn App

Acorns allows investors to divert small amounts of money to the stock market, $5 at a time. And all you need is your mobile phone. Have you seen the fees?

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