Jim Irvine had his compass set on an ideal retirement. With two generous pensions and a 401(k) that he maxed out every year, the American Airlines pilot had been on track to retire by 60 and live out his dream of sailing around the world with his family.
Then a fierce squall hit: AA filed for bankruptcy in 2011. Subsequently one of his pensions was frozen, the other paid out. Suddenly Irvine's retirement dream hinged entirely on his growing his 401(k).
"It's all up to me to invest well," says Irvine, now 48.
Not surprisingly, people who fly aluminum canisters at nearly the speed of sound 40,000 feet above the earth tend to be fairly confident. "We're goal-oriented, take-charge guys," says Irvine. So rather than buying mutual funds to hold for the long haul, he responded by ramping up his already aggressive trading style in hopes of growing his money faster.
Irvine took most of his cues from a newsletter called EZ Tracker that he had begun subscribing to a few years earlier. The newsletter had reported solid returns, and Irvine loved the convenience. He could easily follow EZ Tracker's recommendations -- making about two dozen trades a year, including a few of his own -- and not give up much of the free time between flights that he'd rather spend with his wife, Lisa, and four young kids (ages 4 to 8) in Cleveland.
He didn't pay much attention to his returns as his balance rose, and he had no idea that trading activity was attracting attention of its own. The first indication of this came in 2012, when he got a warning letter from his 401(k) administrator saying his trading activity was "disruptive" to the T. Rowe Price funds in his plan. Undeterred, Irvine continued to buy and sell on EZ Tracker's advice -- until January 2013, when a second letter informed him that he was prohibited from trading into any of the plan's four T. Rowe funds for a full year. "I couldn't believe they actually did it," he says. "It was like one of my kids throwing a tantrum."
He wasn't the only one to get such a letter. From 2011 to 2013, some 1,300 AA employees were barred from trading into T. Rowe funds in their 401(k) plans -- some for a year, some for life. Vanguard recently acknowledged that it's had a similar issue with airline workers: For years, the company says, it's been telling Southwest to inform its staffers that their purchases could be blocked if they trade on the advice of investing newsletters.
A strange set of cases, yes -- but you may have more in common with these highflying investors than you think. While only 15% of 401(k) participants in the U.S. initiated a trade in 2012, according to benefits firm Aon Hewitt, nearly a third of MONEY readers polled made more than five trades last year, and 17% made more than 10.
Even if you're not trading as often as the newsletter subscribers, you're hardly immune to the pressures that drove them to do so. The percentage of Americans enrolled in traditional pensions is now only 14%, down from 38% in 1979, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute, leaving workers increasingly reliant on 401(k) savings. And most are falling behind, countless studies show.
So is it really all that wrong that these airline workers took their plans off autopilot in hope of getting a boost? The fund companies argue that it is, since the kind of trading they're doing can hurt long-term investors (that is, most of you reading this). Meanwhile, subscribers contend they should be able to invest any way they please. But they're missing a more important point: Frequent trading probably won't give them the lift they're hoping for. "The terrible irony," says Frank Murtha, co-founder of MarketPsych, a behavioral-finance consulting firm, "is that by trying so hard to achieve superior returns, you virtually ensure that you will underperform."
Where the trouble began
The curious tale of AA trading bans starts in 2002 with two men: Mike DiBerardino, then an AA pilot, and Paul Burger, who'd just left his job as COO of an ad agency in Philly. The pals had met while working as securities dealers in the '70s.
Long after changing careers, DiBerardino often found himself advising his airline colleagues on retirement investing. "I'd show them what I was doing, and they'd say, 'Send me that!' " he recalls. After he mentioned this to Burger, the two hatched a plan for a newsletter aimed at helping AA employees pick funds in their 401(k). Thus was born EZ Tracker.
Today the AA newsletter has more than 3,000 subscribers, and EZ Tracker's publishers -- who both work at it full-time since DiBerardino's retirement in 2007 -- also produce separate editions for employees of Southwest, JetBlue, United, and US Airways, as well as for pilots of UPS. For pilots, a one-year subscription costs $100; for flight attendants, $85.
On the last Sunday of every month, subscribers get an email containing a link to the newsletter. Each issue offers a market overview, news on plan changes, and, of course, investment picks. Readers can model their investments on one of three portfolios -- aggressive, moderate, and conservative -- each consisting of about six to eight funds from the plan's offerings (which, in AA's case, number 30). And every month the newsletter recommends a handful of trades.
While DiBerardino and Burger don't like the terms "market timing" or "momentum investing," their advice is essentially that: They suggest buying funds that have performed well over the past 12 months and selling those that are cooling off. To make picks, they look purely at price, rather than the fundamentals of the underlying holdings. They also employ a basic asset-allocation strategy to ensure a diverse mix.
EZ Tracker's publishers are not registered investment advisers. They also acknowledge that they are not offering anything the airline employees couldn't find out for themselves. But they say they save workers time by doing the research.
"We're not gurus," says Burger. "There is no crystal ball. We don't know where the market is going, but we can tell you what are the best-performing funds right now."
Their results, which aren't audited by any third party, certainly look impressive. Over the past 10 years EZ Tracker reports an annualized return of 10.7% in the AA aggressive portfolio, compared with 7.4% for the S&P 500. The newsletter's hallmark year -- and the year after which subscriptions "took off," the founders say -- was 2008, when the aggressive portfolio fell just 14.6%, vs. the S&P 500's 37% plunge.
Why airline employees bit
Some time after the debut of EZ Tracker, its publishers noticed the appearance of a competitor called 401k Maximizer, that is today targeted at employees of AA, Southwest, US Airways, and Delta. (The publication's founder, who's been reported to be an AA pilot, did not respond to requests for comment.)
Mark Hulbert, who as editor of the Hulbert Financial Digest has studied the investing newsletter industry for three decades, says it's unusual to see a publication focused on one company's retirement plan because it limits the audience. Yet the airline industry seems to be able to support not one but two newsletters for active 401(k) traders. How come?
Ego is probably one factor. People in high-achieving fields like aviation often have the kind of type A personality that makes them think they can beat the market by trading, says MarketPsych's Murtha. He points to a 2011 study by the University of California showing that investors with an inflated sense of their abilities tend to trade more.
Mike Close, a Southwest pilot from Cape Canaveral, Fla., agrees with Murtha's assessment of his peers: "We all know how to solve the world's problems -- we know the answer to everything," jokes Close, who has subscribed to 401k Maximizer for six years and was among those who received a warning from Vanguard. "This makes a pilot a horrible person to take advice from, especially investment advice," he adds. (Nevertheless, he says, he's been happy with how he's done with Maximizer.)
Meanwhile, a culture of trust and conformity may make pilots more inclined than others to put blind faith in advice from a peer, says Andy Simonds, a pilot for a major airline and a writer for Future & Active Pilot Advisors, a career and financial advisory service. Because they must entrust their lives to co-pilots who can be strangers, he says, it follows that they'd trust colleagues with lesser decisions, like investing.
The reasons Brigitte Laurent, 49, an AA flight attendant from Playa del Rey, Calif., started subscribing to EZ Tracker eight years ago could apply to anyone. Until co-workers suggested she try the newsletter, she had her whole nest egg in a single index fund. "But I always felt like I could do better, like I was missing out," she says. "I feel like I'm more in control now, even though I'm following their advice." And after the AA bankruptcy froze her pension, cut her pay, and cost her vacation days, the 25-year vet of the airline says she needed that sense of stability more than ever.
Sometimes when feeling out of control, we reach for a narrative that will help us feel like we're in the driver's seat, says Dan Ariely, a leading behavioral economist, whose latest book is The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty. "We don't like randomness," he adds. "We try to force order on life around us, so we tell ourselves a story."
The story the newsletters tell is that by trading you can beat the market. Our neurons compound the problem: Studies have shown that the pleasure centers in our brains are activated more when we do something to earn money rather than passively receive it. Add in diminished expectations -- such as those following the market plunge, pension cuts, and pay freezes suffered by AA employees -- and the temptation to act gets even stronger. "When people expect to achieve a certain level of wealth, they can get emotionally anchored to it," says Murtha. So when your actual wealth falls below where you think it should be, you can get an itch to do something to rectify the situation.
But with investing, as with flying, our instincts can be wrong, warns William Bernstein, the neurologist-turned-investment-guru who also has a pilot's license. "When a pilot comes in for a landing while flying slowly and descending rapidly, the instinct is to pull the nose up, but you actually need to point it to the ground to get enough airspeed to fly again," he says. "Investing is the same way: We instinctively react to danger with fight or flight, which is a useful instinct in nature but all wrong in finance. You shouldn't sell when the fund goes down; you should hold on and do nothing."
Why they were banned
Cole Seckman, 58, an AA pilot since 1990 and EZ Tracker subscriber since 2002, was among the first to be barred. Ignoring a warning letter received in fall 2010, Seckman followed EZ Tracker's advice in June 2011 to sell T. Rowe's Science & Technology Fund. That September he was blocked from transferring money into T. Rowe funds for a year. "It was the most ridiculous thing that's happened to me," he says.
T. Rowe won't say how many letters were sent, but DiBerardino and Burger believe that everyone who made that particular trade soon after the issue was published got barred. (A mutual fund has no way of knowing which of its investors are newsletter subscribers, of course, but it can see which participants in a 401(k) are making the same trades at the same time.)
The editors were defiant. "Who the hell are they to tell us how to run the portfolio?" says DiBerardino. So a month after the first ban ended, in August 2012, they advised buying T. Rowe's New Horizons Fund, and three months later advised selling it. Seckman made those moves -- and was promptly barred for another year.
Laurent, who was also banned twice, but on a different timetable, asks the question that plagued many of her fellow subscribers: "T. Rowe Price is huge. How can we disrupt the performance of their funds?"
How indeed? In response to MONEY's inquiry, the company sent a statement: "Collective trading of fund holders acting on the recommendations of others, such as the advice of a newsletter, could cause large cash flows in and out of the T. Rowe Price funds ..."
In other words, it's not the frequency of trades that's a problem, but that so many people are trading at once.
AA employees have nearly $11 billion in their 401(k)s, and pilots specifically have an average balance of $370,000, according to BrightScope, which ranks retirement plans. So if many of EZ Tracker's AA subscribers buy one of the T. Rowe funds in the 401(k), the funds' managers may have to invest in lesser-quality companies or park money in cash. Lots of sell orders, meanwhile, could force managers to unload assets before they reach peak value and drive down the market price of those assets. Buy or sell, managers also incur fees for executing trades. All those moves eat into a fund's return and hurt investors who stay put.
A similar dynamic is responsible for Vanguard's frustration with Southwest employees. The company's pilots can generate up to $45 million in trades in a given fund the week after 401k Maximizer publishes, according to John Nordin of the Southwest pilot union's 401(k) committee. "Equity funds are long-term investments," says Michael Buek, a portfolio manager at Vanguard. "If everybody traded like that, our performance would be horrible."
Regardless of whether a plan has specific rules governing "collective" trading -- as T. Rowe now does -- a fund company can block purchases at its discretion. By all accounts, though, bans such as those received by the airline employees are very unusual. Most 401(k) plans and funds do have rules to curb market timing. But enforcement actions on those are rare too: Only about 0.25% of Fidelity's nearly 13 million 401(k) participants received warning letters for too-frequent trading in 2013.
What's the real damage?
As it turns out, a ban sounds worse than it is: Those who've been barred are still allowed to sell holdings in T. Rowe funds, since by law mutual funds are not allowed to stop a sale. They can even buy into the funds through regular pay-check contributions, since those amounts are smaller and predictable. So the only thing barred employees can't do is transfer an existing balance into the funds. But with 26 other funds to choose from, it's not as if they're out of options.
The real harm of frequent 401(k) trading isn't the trouble you could get into from a fund company, but the fact that you'll likely end up behind the market, says financial adviser and Pace University professor Lew Altfest. To beat benchmarks, you have to time two trades well -- selling high and buying low. And that's a hard bar to clear. Individuals tend to move at the wrong times. Even pros have terrible timing, evidenced by the fact that 61% of actively managed U.S. stock mutual funds underperformed indexes over the five years ending in 2013, according to Standard & Poor's.
EZ Tracker -- and most investing newsletters for that matter -- chases returns, according to Hulbert. But there's a reason the phrase "Past performance is not indicative of future results" has become a cliché. In looking at investor returns from 1995 to 2010, investment firm Gerstein Fisher found that while stocks that rose in the previous 12 months tended to continue rising in the short term, the shares got bid up so much that investors ended up underperforming by one percentage point a year. Further, an analysis of newsletters from 1986 to 2010 by Hulbert found that they underperformed the S&P 500 by an average 2.6 percentage points. "About 20% of the newsletters I track will beat the market, and 80% will not," he says.
MONEY asked Altfest to review EZ Tracker's published results. His finding? "Their record isn't terrible, but it could be better."
The newsletter did well from its inception in 2002 to 2010, thanks largely to smart calls in 2008, and overall the 10-year annualized return for its aggressive portfolio topped the S&P 500's by 3.3 percentage points. But from 2011 to the present, its cumulative three-year gain was 22%, vs. 50% for the S&P 500. "Thaaat's the problem with a momentum strategy," Altfest says. "You can have a favorable effect over short periods, but then there's a change in the market, people start saying, 'Get me out!' and you can get bagged."
Paul Burger acknowledges that market volatility hurt the newsletter's returns of late but says, "If you look at the entire period of 12 years, we do outperform the indexes." True, but as often happens when a money manager gets hot, investors piled in after EZ Tracker's great 2008. Those subscribers don't get the benefit of the outperformance.
Altfest also dug into Jim Irvine's performance: In the five years since he began following the newsletter, his return was 9.1%, about half the 18% gain of the S&P 500. He didn't follow EZ Tracker's advice completely -- a staunch political conservative who heads a gun-rights group, Irvine made some of his own trades based on his fears of a market downturn after President Obama's reelection -- so the newsletter had a better showing at 13.8%. But even a moderate asset-allocation fund in Irvine's plan delivered 14.2% and an aggressive fund returned 17.5%. "Jim did entirely too much trading during the past year," Altfest says. "401(k)s should be operated for long-term appreciation with only occasional judicious changes."
Where they'll go from here
Though EZ Tracker continued to recommend T. Rowe funds after the first round of one-year bans, DiBerardino and Burger stopped suggesting the company's offerings after some subscribers were hit with permanent bans last summer. So now readers who follow the newsletter faithfully will miss out on high-performing funds like T. Rowe's New Horizons (33.7% return for the 12 months ending in March) and Science & Technology (37% for the same period). "We're definitely at a disadvantage," says DiBerardino, who has filed a complaint with the SEC. "But we've gained subscribers since this happened because of our long-term record."
In spite of everything, Laurent (who reports a five-year annualized return of 15.1%) is unwavering in her loyalty to EZ Tracker. Seckman, too, is satisfied with how he's done (15.3% over the same period). "I'm not trying to beat the market," he says. "They've kept me out of trouble and given me reasonable returns."
Initially Irvine was also committed to EZ Tracker and had shrugged off the ban -- "I'll just use other funds," he said in his first interview with MONEY. But he had a different view after hearing Altfest's feedback. The planner estimated that if Irvine continues to underperform, he'd need to work until 72 to hit his savings goal -- an impossibility, since the airline has a mandatory retirement age of 65. Altfest suggested Irvine instead opt for a set-it-and-forget-it portfolio with 20% in cash and fixed income and 80% in equities, heavily weighted toward large-cap (38%) and international (25%) funds. With a reasonable 7% return, Irvine could retire at 64.
At first taken aback by the critique, Irvine soon saw Altfest had a point. In particular, the planner's advice to buy three T. Rowe funds (now that his ban is over) made Irvine realize how much lingering anger was hurting him. "I was going to work longer just so I can not invest in their funds?" he says. "That's cutting off my nose to spite my face." His new investing plan in place, Irvine has been looking at boats -- a 42-foot Jeanneau looks like a beauty -- and made a spreadsheet to monitor his progress. "I lost track of the target," he says. "It's embarrassing because I'd never do that in an airplane. This has been a good wake-up call to right the ship."