Class Acts and Crass Acts of 2004
Let us introduce you to a dozen unsung people who did right by you last year. Let us also remind you of a few who did not
(MONEY Magazine) – Who was looking out for your wallet last year? Who was gunning for it? Buried in the fine print of our financial lives—and lurking behind the curtain of any financial story—are people and organizations that make a significant difference to your family's well-being. It so happened that last year we came across a heartening number of people and outfits that were making your life better: number crunchers and whistle-blowers taking on corporate misbehavior; business, government and nonprofit innovators doing their jobs really, really well under tough circumstances; and moneymaking outfits that in looking out for their own bottom line did yours a favor as well. There were also, as always, a few who dropped the ball—hard. Our thought in nominating our first-ever Class Acts and Crass Acts was to commend those who improved things for our readers over the past year. As for those who did the opposite—well, we figured you'd want to take a good look at them too.
They Tricked Us into Saving More
SHLOMO BENARTZI AND RICHARD THALER The Anderson School at UCLA and the University of Chicago
If investors are often at war with their own best interests, these guys deserve a peace prize. The problem they tackled is this: We Americans don't save enough for retirement, and it's extremely hard to persuade us to save any more. Once the money is in our pockets, or figured into our budgets, we generally won't give it up. But Benartzi and Thaler knew from their work in the field of behavioral economics that it's much easier to convince people to give up money they don't yet have. So they developed Save More Tomorrow, which asks participants to agree in advance to have a slightly higher percentage of their salaries taken out of their paychecks each year. The increased 401(k) contribution comes out of raises—so you sock away more money without ever seeing an actual decline in your take-home pay. The results at the first company to roll out the program were amazing. Employees who joined more than tripled their savings rate to 11.6% in 28 months. Now Benartzi and Thaler are working with providers like Vanguard and Fidelity to include the program in 401(k) plans they administer. Vanguard, for one, now offers its version at several hundred corporations.
Data That Can Save Lives
THE LEAPFROG GROUP Health-care research consortium
It's the gazillion-dollar question: How can we improve the quality and affordability of health-care—at the same time? The Leapfrog Group has come up with one proven answer: Keep close tabs on what works and what doesn't.
Founded in 2000 by business coalitions and the heads of health benefits at Fortune 500 companies, Leapfrog was initially focused on reducing preventable medical mistakes. The idea was to survey hospitals to determine which have computerized drug-ordering systems, maintain expertise in intensive-care units, and follow 28 other specific practices known to reduce medical errors. Leapfrog members offer bonus payments to hospitals that show improvements. And the group wields the stick as well as the carrot: Participation is voluntary, but hospitals that don't play ball are singled out for opprobrium on the website. The results of the 2004 survey are available to the public at leapfroggroup.org. In short, Leapfrog has made the health-care system more transparent, allowing employers and consumers alike to make smarter choices. If that's not a solution to our health-care woes, it is a real leap forward.
Lives that could be saved annually if all U.S. urban hospitals implemented Leapfrog's top three safety practices
Source: Dr. J.D. Birkmeyer, University of Michigan.
The Privacy Crusader
CHRIS LARSEN Chairman, CEO, E-Loan
What's in your wallet? Or credit-card statement? Or insurance file? That's nobody's business but yours, right? Well, California consumers who worried how financial institutions might use their personal data have a new law—and Chris Larsen—to thank for some welcome peace of mind. Larsen's role at the pioneer Net lender E-Loan gave him a unique perspective on privacy issues: Internet companies like his have privacy restrictions, he figured; why should brick-and-mortar banks be able to routinely sell information about you without your knowledge? In June 2002, Larsen founded and backed—to the tune of $1 million—Californians for Privacy Now, a coalition dedicated to giving consumers opt-in or opt-out power over how financial firms use their information. He spearheaded the initiative to gather signatures for a ballot measure. In 2003 he mediated the compromise between consumer groups, legislators and the financial industry that led to the California Financial Information Privacy Act, which went into effect in 2004. The country's strongest financial privacy law, it has already survived a court appeal. Armed with this victory, consumer advocates are working toward similar rules around the country.
Spitzer's Heavy Lifter
DAVID BROWN Chief of investment protection, New York attorney general's office
New York attorney general Eliot Spitzer has earned the limelight for laying bare corruption among Wall Street analysts, mutual fund firms and, more recently, insurance brokerages. But the guy in charge of the nasty behind-the-scenes job of sifting through subpoenaed e-mail and piecing together cases is Spitzer's chief of investment protection, David Brown, a 46-year-old Harvard Law grad who left a lucrative job at Goldman Sachs for the post in mid-2003. In May 2003, former hedge fund employee Noreen Harrington came into Spitzer's office and blew the whistle on market timing by mutual funds; under Brown's direction, that tip turned into the biggest investigation—and scandal—in the history of the fund industry. Then, this past April, an anonymous letter claiming conflicts of interest at insurance giant Marsh & McLennan landed on Brown's desk. His office filed suit in October alleging bid rigging, and two weeks later Marsh's CEO had been ousted and the firm and its peers had agreed to stop the disputed practices. Bottom line: Few have done more to make the organizations we trust with our money focus on earning that trust.
Your Voice at the IRS
NINA OLSON National taxpayer advocate
True, it may be hard to reconcile "class act" and tax collectors. But Olson is on your side. She's the public's ombudsman at the IRS, as well as head of a network of 2,000 taxpayer advocates across the country. In her annual report to Congress, Olson raises a stink about the biggest problems in the tax code. Does that help? Yes, but slowly. Olson figures it takes three years from the time she first identifies a problem until Congress solves it. Her successes include a standard definition of a child for tax purposes, which cleared a perennially tricky filing problem. A top priority now: the alternative minimum tax, the stealth levy hitting more and more middle-class taxpayers. "The AMT has to be fixed," she says.
The Carriers That Changed the Game
AIRTRAN, AMERICA WEST, FRONTIER, JETBLUE, SOUTHWEST... Discount Airlines
When you fly, do you worry that the guy in the next seat paid half what you did? Do you hate exorbitant last-minute fares? Required Saturday stays? You don't have to. Even if 2004 goes down as one of the worst years ever for the airline business, consumers mostly soared above it all, not least because the balance of power shifted decisively from major carriers to their low-cost competitors, transforming the industry into a simpler, saner, cheaper way to travel. As discounters expanded and traditional airlines scrambled to compete, fares on hundreds of routes tumbled. The majors are slowly catching on and jettisoning silly rules like Saturday-night stays and penalties for one-way tickets—or starting their own low-cost lines. Many majors still gouge travelers. And discounters don't all have sound business models. But traveling by air will never be the same.
AVERAGE ROUND-TRIP COACH FARE Los Angeles to New York City
Source: Harrell Associates.
She Put the Squeeze on Lemons
ROSEMARY SHAHAN President, Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety
The one place you can count on finding Rosemary Shahan is on the driver's side. Shahan has spent 25 years pushing for auto safety and car-buying fairness in the courts and the legislature, with California's Lemon Law and mandatory air bags among her most notable victories. More recently, she helped pass a California law that, by requiring dealers to keep detailed loan records for seven years, should deliver a blow to deceptive lending practices. She hopes it—like the Lemon Law—will go national within the next several years.
Also in 2004, Shahan successfully helped create a state program that aims to prevent the growing spate of loan and auto scams targeting military families. Next up: Another fight for the vetoed Car Buyer's Bill of Rights, which would outlaw hidden loan costs, among other dubious practices.
Fighting for Fairness in Auto Lending
MARK A. COHEN Professor, Vanderbilt University
Auto dealers routinely pad profits by adding a few points to the interest rate on car loans. Thanks to Cohen, we now know that the padding hasn't always been applied fairly to Americans of all races. When a group of borrowers sued auto financer General Motors Acceptance Corporation, Cohen provided the statistical smoking gun that suggested racial bias in the amount of the markups. In an analysis of more than 1.5 million GMAC loans, Cohen found that black borrowers paid an average of $362 more in total extra interest than whites with similar credit. In the settlement announced in February, GMAC agreed to cap markups at 2.5 percentage points above GMAC's buy rate for loans up to 60 months, and two points for longer-term loans. Most other car makers' lending arms face similar suits.
Keeping Drugmakers Honest
MEDICAL JOURNAL EDITORS Journal of the American Medical Association, New England Journal of Medicine and 10 others
Take it from this writer: Twelve competing editors have never agreed on anything—until now. In the wake of an alarming number of allegations that pharmaceutical companies failed to disclose safety concerns about certain drugs (most recently the arthritis drug Vioxx and antidepressants for teenagers), the editors of the world's top medical journals decided to take their red pencils and draw a line in the sand. The Journal of the American Medical Association, The Lancet, the New England Journal of Medicine and nine other peer-reviewed publications jointly announced in September that they will refuse to publish drug research sponsored by pharmaceutical companies unless the studies are registered online before they begin. By dragging clinical practices—things like the size, scope, original goals, sponsor, methodology and findings of trials—into the harsh light of public scrutiny, the editors hope to prevent drugmakers from suppressing studies that find medications ineffective or harmful. Because pharmaceutical firms rely on the journals to help physicians understand new drugs and to verify bona fide breakthroughs, the practice is sure to give the public a better window into drug safety.
The Guy Behind the "Do Not Call" List
TIMOTHY J. MURIS Former Federal Trade Commission chairman
If you've found that your family dinners are somehow more peaceful these days, you have Timothy Muris to thank. Under his watch, the FTC instituted the National Do Not Call Registry, which is ensuring that millions of American families have evenings free of telemarketing calls. Getting there hasn't been easy. After the FTC opened the registry in June 2003, it was met with a lawsuit brought by the direct-marketing industry challenging the FTC's authority. Enter Muris, a somewhat unlikely savior. A George W. Bush appointee whom most perceived as an ally of the direct-marketing industry, Muris used his pull within the administration to persuade Congress to pass legislation that could (and did) help the "do not call" list survive the legal challenge. He has since left for the private sector, but his work lives on. So far, Americans have registered some 66 million phone numbers by calling 888-382-1222 or visiting donotcall.gov—a figure that's said to represent more than half the U.S. adult population. And while the registry is not yet a foolproof system, recent studies indicate that it is working: 92% of Americans surveyed say they've received fewer telemarketing calls. We now return you to your regularly scheduled dinner.
92% of Americans on the "do not call" list say they are getting fewer telemarketing calls
They Put Your Performance First
JOHN GUNN AND HARRY HAGEY Chief investment officer and CEO, Dodge & Cox
In the fund industry, success inexorably leads to trouble: Top-performing funds attract more money, grow unwieldy and—all too often—start to underperform. But stopping the process by limiting new investments means also limiting the fund firm's profits. So give Dodge & Cox execs credit for closing funds to new investors. The firm shuttered the top-performing $37 billion Dodge & Cox Stock fund in January 2004 and the $19 billion Dodge & Cox Balanced fund in September. Sure, other companies sometimes close successful funds, but these two portfolios account for nearly three-quarters of the firm's asset base. "It's a kind of noble thing," says FundAlarm's Roy Weitz. "And nobility in the fund industry is pretty rare these days."
Ahead of the Pack
-5.5% Dodge & Cox funds
26.7% Dodge & Cox funds
7.5% Dodge & Cox funds
Notes: Returns are asset-weighted.  Through Oct. 31. Source: Morningstar.
Notes: Returns are asset-weighted.  Through Oct. 31. Source: Morningstar.
Blowing the Whistle on Billing Abuse
DR. JOHN BAGNATO AND CHARLES REHBERG Surgeon and C.P.A.
It happened during a search for something else. Bagnato, a surgeon at Phoebe Putney Health System in Albany, Ga., asked his accountant, Charles Rehberg, to help research a business plan for his practice. What they found, buried in the financial statements of their own nonprofit hospital, was what appeared to be systematic overbilling of uninsured patients. The pair spent 2003 poring over the statements of dozens of other hospitals and concluded that many also overcharged patients and then aggressively sought payment. Getting nowhere with state officials, they delivered their findings to Big Tobacco litigator Richard Scruggs. So far, Scruggs has sued 37 health-care systems in 26 states. (Phoebe Putney spokeswoman Jackie Ryan says the hospital has no comment on Bagnato and Rehberg's allegations and that "we believe the Scruggs lawsuit is baseless and without merit.") In August, North Mississippi Health Services agreed to refund $300,000 and forgive the bills of an estimated 50,000 patients before a suit was brought.
We don't have to tell you that not every business and lawmaker is on your side. You already know that the fine print can house a multitude of financial traps. Still, we can't help singling out a handful of people and deeds that really stand out from the crowd for sheer greed and cravenness.
Arizona's 529 Plans
Leading the nation in subpar choices
When it comes to college savings programs, Arizona fails to make the grade. In a recent Morningstar rating of costs and investments at all 74 state 529s, two of Arizona's plans landed in the bottom five. A lowlight: the Waddell & Reed InvestEd Plan, which had annual fees as high as 2.64% early in 2004 and offers just three anemic blended funds and no age-based portfolios. The plan has since capped expenses at 1.85%, yet that's still a far cry from the more typical 1.2%, let alone low-cost options (see below). Even a new $500 state tax deduction can't redeem these 529s, which are overseen by the Arizona Commission for Postsecondary Education. "These plans are just poorly designed," says Morningstar's Dan McNeela, who authored the study. "They just haven't addressed any of the real shortcomings."
A Pricey Difference
MAXIMUM ANNUAL EXPENSES
1.85% Arizona's Waddell & Reed InvestEd Plan
0.44% Utah Educational Savings Plan
Sources: The Plans.
American Jobs Creation Act
a.k.a. the No Lobbyist Left Behind Act
Passed just before the election, this omnibus tax bill will prove a classic in the annals of larded lawmaking. "A case study of how bad legislating has gotten," snorts Keith Ashdown, vice president of policy at Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan budget watchdog group. TCS identified $16 billion worth of unnecessary tax breaks and giveaways that greased the bill's way through Congress. Consider a few particularly porcine examples. Duties were suspended on imported ceiling fans at the behest of Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.), a big help to Atlanta-based Home Depot, the largest seller of them. Cost to taxpayers: $44 million. Excise taxes were reduced by $11 million on fishing tackle boxes—a pet project of House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), whose district is home to Plano Molding, which makes them. And Nascar track owners got a $101 million tax break. The promoters there included Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-Ariz.), who helped lobby Nascar to hold a big event in Phoenix. Let's just hope a few jobs really do come out of this travesty.
American-Amicable et al.
Misrepresenting an expensive life insurance policy as a savvy investment is always wrong, but doing it to young, financially inexperienced soldiers waiting to be deployed to Iraq takes the practice to a new low. A congressional subcommittee and the Georgia Insurance Commission have partially substantiated allegations of the practice made by soldiers at three Georgia bases. So far, only American-Amicable Life Insurance has acknowledged the role agents selling its products played, and promised to pay back premiums. Other companies still under investigation in Georgia include Madison National Life, Pioneer American Insurance, Trans World Assurance and American Fidelity.
Think your rates are high? Try prime plus 36%
The subprime Aspire Visa, issued by Atlanta-based CompuCredit, holds the dubious honor of charging the most egregious punitive interest rate in the business: prime plus 36.25 points (for a current total of 41.25%). Punitive rates—the exorbitant levy that issuers can charge after you miss a payment or go over your limit—have been creeping up for years. In October, punitive rates at the top 10 issuers ranged from 24.65% to 30.74%, according to CardWeb.com. The Aspire Visa reserves its record-setter for cardholders who miss the due date for two cycles in a row. (CompuCredit did not return MONEY's calls.) Talk about a kick in your aspirations.
Costly Cards Aspire's rate for borrowers with credit trouble
Call him the whistle-choker. According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), Scully, Medicare's former administrator, blocked Congress from hearing an unfavorable estimate of the cost of the Medicare prescription-drug benefit, which took effect in 2004. Medicare chief actuary Richard Foster told Congress that Scully threatened to fire him if he informed lawmakers that his cost estimate was $534 billion over the next decade, not the Congressional Budget Office's $400 billion. Although Scully denied the charge (he did not return MONEY's calls but told the Washington Post that he "was only joking" about firing Foster), the GAO suggested that Scully return about half of his $145,600 salary because of the dispute. An investigation by the Department of Health and Human Services concluded that Scully had been aggressive but broke no law. Where is Scully now? He's senior counsel at Alston & Bird, a D.C. firm that lobbied for the bill on behalf of Johnson & Johnson.