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How to Scare People With Really Large Numbers

The federal government is in $16 trillion of debt, and that figure is growing like a weed. This is a serious issue that shouldn't be taken lightly.

But what's more dangerous than our mounting debt? People of authority making the problem seem worse than it is.

On Monday, former congressmen Chris Cox and Bill Archer wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, writing:

We most often hear about the alarming $15.96 trillion national debt (more than 100% of GDP), and the 2012 budget deficit of $1.1 trillion (6.97% of GDP). As dangerous as those numbers are, they do not begin to tell the story of the federal government's true liabilities.

The actual liabilities of the federal government -- including Social Security, Medicare, and federal employees' future retirement benefits -- already exceed $86.8 trillion, or 550% of GDP.

$86.8 trillion. That's a huge number. The pair continue:

Why haven't Americans heard about the titanic $86.8 trillion liability from these programs? One reason: The actual figures do not appear in black and white on any balance sheet.

I'd add at least one more reason: The figure is highly dubious and not taken seriously by any sober budget analyst.

The number comes from a simple calculation: Add up all expected future payouts for Social Security and Medicare (that's the bulk of it, anyway) from now until infinity, and subtract all expected future revenue the programs might bring in. Discount to present value, and you get $87 trillion.

The problem is that both the spending and revenue assumptions are nothing more than that -- assumptions. And assumptions based specifically on current law. So, the figures are accurate only if you assume:

  • No existing law changes from now until infinity (literally, the end of time.)
  • Projections about growth made 100+ years into the future are accurate.

Both are terrible assumptions.

If Congress and the president woke up tomorrow and decided that certain Social Security inputs should be tied to inflation instead of wage growth, poof!, $20.5 trillion of that "liability" disappears. If they raised the Medicare eligibility age, another several trillion is cleaved off. And if health care cost growth slows to near the rate of overall economic growth (which it already has), most of the $87 trillion liability vanishes.

It's misleading to call the $87 trillion figure a liability because no one is liable for it. Unlike debt, Social Security and Medicare aren't contractual obligations. Heritage Foundation economist JD Foster explains: "Legally, they are not liabilities ... Congress can at any time reduce or alter them. In contrast, state pension plans are contractual labor arrangements that are liabilities because they are legally enforceable."

There's good precedent for this "alter at any time" feature. Social Security was a mess 30 years ago. The program faced "insolvency in the near future," Senator Bob Dole warned in 1982. Estimates at the time showed Social Security would go bust by 1990. That never happened, because in 1983 President Reagan and Tip O'Neil shook hands on a deal to reduce benefits and raise taxes to keep the program intact. Life went on. Expect something similar to happen in the coming years. 

More important, our record of budget forecasting over five-year periods is abominable, so forecasting into the 23rdcentury and beyond is just obnoxious. Twelve years ago, the biggest fear on budget experts' minds was that all government debt would be repaid by 2009, and there wouldn't be any bonds left for retirees to buy. Unfazed, the same people are now forecasting with decimal-point precision what the budget will look like in the year 2197. It's just mad.

Indeed, the American Academy Of Actuaries has taken issue with Social Security and Medicare's trustees for publishing the numbers Cox and Archer warn about, writing that the figures

provide little if any useful information about the program's long-range finances and indeed are likely to mislead anyone lacking technical expertise in the demographic, economic and actuarial aspects of the program's finances into believing that the program is in far worse financial condition than is actually indicated.

The group made a broader point about long-term forecasting, writing: 

Consider the situation of actuaries or economists in the year 1928 attempting to project demographic and economic parameters 75 years into the future -- to 2003. They likely would have missed the Great Depression, World War II, the baby boom, the influx of women into the labor force, etc. Nobody, no matter how intelligent or educated, could have anticipated these very significant events.

Things change, in other words.

Here's a good example of things changing: The lynchpin of dire long-term budget forecasting is an assumption that medical costs will spiral out of control, as they did for most of the last three decades. Maybe they will, but right now, they aren't. Unforeseen by virtually everyone, medical cost growth has plunged to a 50-year low. If that's a trend rather than blip, a large portion of projected budget deficits will disappear without any changes to entitlement eligibility or taxes.

"[R]eal-world impacts will be felt when currently unfunded liabilities need to be paid," Cox and Archer write. Thankfully, they don't.

Read/Post Comments (39) | Recommend This Article (65)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

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  • Report this Comment On November 29, 2012, at 11:23 AM, ClimbinFool wrote:


    The other morning morning I heard Buffett on the Marketplace Morning Report, and he said we'd have a "happy household" if the Government took in 18.5% GDP in revenues and spent around 21% GDP. To me that sounds like a 2.5% GDP deficit each year, which is way better than what we have now but still doesn't sound sustainable in the long term. What am I missing?

  • Report this Comment On November 29, 2012, at 11:25 AM, TMFMorgan wrote:

    A deficit is sustainable in perpetuity as long as it is below nominal GDP growth. As long as it is, debt-to-GDP will be stable (or declining).

  • Report this Comment On November 29, 2012, at 12:21 PM, ClimbinFool wrote:

    Thanks, that's what I assumed but I failed miserably at proving it to myself with a spreadsheet model. I always enjoy your articles and appreciate your participation in the comments section.

  • Report this Comment On November 29, 2012, at 5:47 PM, cfravel wrote:

    1. Deficit growth has far outpaced GDP growth. In fact, if you adjust GDP for inflation and remove deficit spending, 2012 GDP is 8% below 2000 levels. This shouldn't be terribly surprising, because 99-2000 were boom years with lots of spending. But, it is important to realize that if you factor in inflation and remove borrowed money being spent, GDP is NOT growing. Therefore, spending should also not be growing, yet it is up 100% since 2000, $1.8T in 2000 vs. about $3.6T in 2012. (I used the inflation figures at to make these calculations, and the spending & deficit figures are from /

    2. The last 30 years have also shown us that whenever possible, government will choose to borrow instead of balance. Thus, we can assume the government will continue to do so. THAT is why the figures are scary: because we've already been shown that no one will do anything about these problems until they are no longer sustainable. And, there's a very real possibility we could be steered into territory where there is no fix that does not have widespread negative economic impact.

  • Report this Comment On November 29, 2012, at 5:54 PM, TMFMorgan wrote:

    ^ To clarify, there is no doubt that the deficit is far higher than GDP growth right now. I was just responding to his question about how a deficit of a certain size could be sustainable.

  • Report this Comment On November 29, 2012, at 5:57 PM, smartmuffin wrote:

    Have you SEEN how entitlement reform is handled in politics these days?

    Make the slightest insinuation that MAYBE we MIGHT consider raising the retirement age by a whopping two years and presto, political ads showing you throwing a grandma in a wheelchair off a cliff!

    I think "absolutely no changes to the law" is a COMPLETELY reasonable position when it comes to entitlement programs. To be more realistic, we might actually do the opposite and assume that new entitlements will be created without any corresponding funding source and the liability will grow that much larger. That is certainly the historical precedent.

    Now you're right that growth projections more than a few years out are guesses. But how do we know they are too pessimistic? Isn't there an equally good chance that they are too optimistic and that it could be even worse than the 86 trillion?

  • Report this Comment On November 29, 2012, at 6:12 PM, cfravel wrote:

    Right, sorry, wasn't meaning to imply I thought you were saying deficits weren't outpacing growth, just that because they are, we should be concerned about reversing that trend.

  • Report this Comment On November 29, 2012, at 6:26 PM, xetn wrote:

    Dr. Gary North has written multiple articles on entitlements for several years. He accurately predicted when the SS trust fund would go into the red in 2010. His latest article on the entitlement deficits offers different take on the issue:

  • Report this Comment On November 29, 2012, at 6:27 PM, cfravel wrote:

    @smartmuffin, I agree with your assessment. Their projections could indeed be not pessimistic enough. I would even go so far as to say probably aren't, but that's just personal opinion.

    I think entitlement spending will grow, because healthcare costs will rise, graft will get smarter and more widespread as more money gets spent, and an aging population indicates higher per capita healthcare costs in the future.

    On the flip side, I think it will just get harder and harder for governments to increase revenue. Entrepreneurship is down every year for the last 12 years, suggesting there will be fewer new successful companies to tax in the future. More and more people will be drawn to the ease of giving up and adopting government programs instead of working hard to acquire personal success. For the average person, it doesn't take too long to figure out the odds they will be able to save an extra $250K for retirement (average estimated medical costs for retirees) are pretty low, so why should they bust their balls trying, when they can just qualify for medicaid by saving nothing? That's not exactly an environment conducive to achievement.

  • Report this Comment On November 29, 2012, at 6:42 PM, TMFMorgan wrote:

    <,But how do we know they are too pessimistic? Isn't there an equally good chance that they are too optimistic and that it could be even worse than the 86 trillion?>>

    Only if congress wants it to be worse. Every variable, from how much taxes the programs bring in to who is eligible for benefits to the dollar amount of benefits that are paid out, is up to them.

  • Report this Comment On November 29, 2012, at 6:56 PM, cfravel wrote:

    This would be the same congress that projected we would grow at the dotcom boom pace ad infinitum? The same congress that was warned about creating a housing bubble if interest rates were lowered to spur growth, after the dotcom bust? Not every variable is up to them. Their revenue appetite causes them to be too optimistic in projections. Their power appetite causes them to cripple markets, by interfering with markets and developing barriers to competition to benefit vested interests.

    They can try to project and adopt the right variables, but I'm not real impressed with their track record in the last 12 years.

  • Report this Comment On November 29, 2012, at 7:03 PM, matthewluke wrote:

    "If Congress and the president woke up tomorrow and decided..."

    Hold on for a second. When have this current congress and this current president shown the ability to decide anything.That is a BIG "if" right there, lol. :p

  • Report this Comment On November 29, 2012, at 7:05 PM, maiday2000 wrote:

    The CBO is notoriously bad at forecasting costs and predicting economic growth. If you have ever met anyone that works there you would see why. In any case, who cares about "medical cost" growth when no one actually sees the "real" costs anyway? The cost is in how much you pay for health insurance, and the costs of insurance are still going up faster than wage growth. And while you are paying higher premiums, how about a dose of longer queues as well? Pay more, less service. Welcome to Obamacare!

  • Report this Comment On November 29, 2012, at 7:12 PM, maiday2000 wrote:


    This actually isn't the same Congress as twelve years ago or even two years ago. Congress also doesn't "predict" economic growth. The CBO and (more likely) the OMB put forth budget projections based on some internal economic growth assumptions from the the CEA. You are definitely on point with on their hunger for power, but that certainly isn't limited to the legislative branch.

  • Report this Comment On November 29, 2012, at 8:03 PM, smartmuffin wrote:

    "Only if congress wants it to be worse. Every variable, from how much taxes the programs bring in to who is eligible for benefits to the dollar amount of benefits that are paid out, is up to them. "

    So, to re-state my question then, why should WE (and what makes YOU) assume that Congress WILL in fact act and deal with this issue in a logical, responsible, and beneficial way?

    That's one of the more outlandish assumptions I've ever heard anyone make!

  • Report this Comment On November 29, 2012, at 11:27 PM, RouteReflector wrote:


    He didn't actually make an assumption. He just said Congress has the ability to change the existing rules.

  • Report this Comment On November 30, 2012, at 6:54 AM, ostreger wrote:

    What isn't 'highly dubious' is hyper-inflation. In Hungary four hundred billion-billion-billion - four followed by 29 zeros! - pengõs were, actually and unarguably, replaced by one single foirint, about a dollar. Neither I nor anybody else knows what so great a number means, but if you has borrowed to buy the entire world before the collapse, you could have repaid your debt with nickels.

  • Report this Comment On November 30, 2012, at 9:43 AM, smartmuffin wrote:

    "He didn't actually make an assumption. He just said Congress has the ability to change the existing rules."

    Well, I don't know about you, but that doesn't make ME feel any less scared about these "really large numbers." If anything, the fact that Congress controls all of this stuff makes it MORE scary.

    Yes, they could change the rules to make it better. They could ALSO change the rules to make it much worse. Guess which they've done more often, historically?

  • Report this Comment On November 30, 2012, at 11:06 AM, mdk0611 wrote:

    Congress indeed has the ability to change the rules. And right now it appears that the 2% reduction in the rate of FICA withholding is on the way to becoming unofficially permanent. That reduction in revenues into the Social Security system has been a really large number for the past 2 years, and making it de facto permanent scares me.

    In other words, while Congress may have the right to tackle the entitlements issue, if anything they seem to be making it worse.

  • Report this Comment On November 30, 2012, at 11:19 AM, TMFMorgan wrote:

    ^ The payroll tax cut is offset with a contribution from the general fund. So while it obviously increases overall deficits, it has no impact on SS's direct finances (which is where the $87t figure comes from.)

  • Report this Comment On November 30, 2012, at 12:27 PM, GrumpyOldGuy wrote:

    There is no doubt we will devalue the dollar at some point in the future so that $87T liability will only cost us $8.7T. See how easy it is to balance the books?

  • Report this Comment On November 30, 2012, at 1:43 PM, Schneidku40 wrote:

    Stelket, in response to your comment "Entrepreneurship is down every year for the last 12 years, suggesting there will be fewer new successful companies to tax in the future." How much of this do you think could just be attributable to the normal ebb and flow of the business cycle? The 90's were roaring with internet startups. Previous decades have had similar expansions in computer hardware companies, appliance companies, steel/metalworking companies, electricity companies (or those that supply parts for the infrastructure), oil companies, etc. Each of these expansions created wealth and increased the standard of living, but then after that initial boom period the industry went through a decline in growth and saw an increase in mergers, buyouts, etc., which shrunk the number of companies in the space and increased the barrier to entry largely due to efficiency and sheer size of the surviving companies. I think in the next 5-10 years there will be some other new thing that will become a boom and reverse that entrepreneurship figure.

  • Report this Comment On November 30, 2012, at 3:42 PM, ibuildthings wrote:

    Recent political behavior shows us that voters are asking the short-term question "What is in it for ME?". The political class is happy to offer goodies to answer. Both sides should be asking, "How do we preserve OUR nation as a place where you can make your way?"

    Republicans should understand that not everyone wants to be a CEO or entrepeneur, and some just want family wage jobs where one income can buy a modest home in a safe area with decent schools.

    Democrats should learn to tell the difference between a victim of bad luck and a deadbeat who never even tried to be self-sufficient. Our safety net would cost half and the real victims could get what they need without having it taken by an army of freeloaders.

    Both parties should quit lying about each other. It only cements that hatred when you know that your side has a legitimate point that someone distorts to the camera.

    Both parties should negotiate honestly. The reason the republicans won't hand over tax hikes in exchange for a promise of spending cuts is that the last time that happened, Bush 1 agreed to hikes in exchange for cuts that never happened. And the Dems used the promise they encouraged him to break against him in the 1992 election. That is the worst kind of politics. No trust remains.

  • Report this Comment On November 30, 2012, at 3:45 PM, ibuildthings wrote:

    And the last time a Republican president granted blanket amnesty for "undocumented" residents, it was on a promise from Democrats that they would make real changes for border security. That was 15 million new illegals ago, and nothing has changed. Political parties can't trust promises, and they can't trust opponents who use deceptive ads and dirty tricks. Both parties need to become trustworthy, even at a short term expense from time to time. Credibility is the only long-term commodity that matters here.

  • Report this Comment On November 30, 2012, at 9:03 PM, KayakerRW wrote:

    "in 1983 President Reagan and Tip O'Neil shook hands on a deal to reduce benefits and raise taxes to keep the program intact. Life went on. Expect something similar to happen in the coming years."

    I hope you're correct about this; however, one difference is that Tip O'Neill was a realistic politician who understood that even though he had a majority in the House (62.5%), since the Republicans had the White House and Senate (55 - 45), he needed to compromise with Reagan. I haven't seen that quality in John Boehner or Eric Cantor. Also, the Senate Democrats in 1983 recognized that the Republican majority had the right to pass some of their proposals and didn't try to filibuster almost every major bill they disagreed with.

  • Report this Comment On December 01, 2012, at 2:26 AM, whereaminow wrote:


    Everything you say about our overlords' abilities in forecasting is absolutely correct.

    Unfortunately, their track record is to consistently over-estimate growth of the economy and under-estimate the growth of government budgets.

    So how does that make the situation better?

    David in Liberty

  • Report this Comment On December 04, 2012, at 2:18 AM, TerryHogan wrote:

    I would agree that the numbers aren't as scary as some would have you believe, but they're still very scary. I think sometimes the numbers need to be shown in a scary light in order to motivate some action.

    I also think the point about the future being unknown is very relevant. It could easily be worse, so why not be prepared. If we're pleasantly surprised, so much the better.

    Adjusting the age for medicare and SS should be a reasonable first step, and one that makes sense when viewed in light of improved longevity (It still stinks, but it's better than doing nothing).

  • Report this Comment On December 04, 2012, at 5:10 AM, Sunny7039 wrote:

    The number of people on Social Security Disability (as of 2011) is over 8,575,000. This is a 70% increase since 2000, when the total was just over 5,000,000. A third have mental disorders.

    Make no mistake -- disability is hard to qualify for. These people are really sick. My point isn't that the disabled are "too expensive" now. My point is that the people who would have retired at 62 or 65 or 67 will be applying for disability instead, and perhaps at ever earlier ages, for fear of losing out. Is this an implied contradiction -- if it's so hard to qualify, why would it matter if more people apply? They'll just be rejected, so why should it matter?

    No they won't be rejected. When you have a prolonged period of high unemployment, with millions suffering long-term unemployment, you do see severe breakdowns in mental health. People who would never have applied, and who would have gladly worked until their late 60s, aren't able to.

    The solution -- the only solution -- to these imbalances is more jobs. No other "plan" has a chance of working. But no matter what else we do, if the productive economy as a whole is still on the hook the next time the financial sector implodes (and it will), the rest will be irrelevant. That, and all the costs of our raw materials wars, are what is busting our budgets.

    People seem to forget another fact. All other things being equal, a person on Medicare is a much more desirable hire than a person a few years younger. The employer is under no pressure to ensure that employee, and the employee needn't worry about his healthcare, or at least not so much compared to most people over 50. You raise the age for Medicare, you make a whole bunch of older workers less desirable. But you want them to work longer. Okay.

    I think you need to think all of this through a little more.

  • Report this Comment On December 05, 2012, at 3:46 PM, Sunny7039 wrote:

    Here's an article by James Kwak:

    He collaborated with Simon Johnson (IMF, MIT) in at least two really good books.

    We're discussing some of the most important issues for our society, and people are content to regurgitate the lamest propaganda. Can another crisis be far behind? I don't want to believe it, but that's overoptimism for you.

  • Report this Comment On December 07, 2012, at 6:34 PM, ChrisBern wrote:

    Mr. Housel -- I'm of the mindset that people need to be scared when there's a potentially serious situation approaching. To do anything less merely breeds complacency. My wake up call was around 2008 when I saw the documentary IOUSA. Since then I've taken the concept of deficits, debt, and uncapped entitlements very seriously. And it's only gotten worse since then.

    As others have said, politicians have shown zero desire or willpower to change anything about the trajectory of entitlements. It's political suicide to even mention it. You say they aren't contractual obligations, but they are most certainly de facto obligations. We all know people have been conditioned to expect them. I'd have no problem doing away with Social Security entirely and having voluntary defined contribution retirement plans instead, but people don't like that because it entails too much personal responsibility.

    Maybe the number isn't $87T but it's $37T or $17T. I think we're arguing over semantics here as these numbers are inconceivably large anyway. The point is that politicians are not willing to make hard decisions TODAY that will improve our situation TOMORROW. Citizens are not willing to vote on candidates who want to change these things today (e.g. Gary Johnson)--they keep voting in status quo candidates like Obama and Romney. Until any of this changes, I think it is imperative for anyone who has a "voice" in the media or in politics to not dismiss these financial concerns as "alarmist". If anything, most people are too complacent right now, and we could easily find ourselves in 15 years looking like Japan--another country fully guilty of debt complacency.

  • Report this Comment On December 07, 2012, at 7:34 PM, Hookem2011 wrote:

    Does Mt Housel always take the approach that things are better than they seem? Is he employed full time by TMF or just when he writes a "shock" article? I thought the article on SS bankrupt myth was bad but this one eclipses it! Does not seem to be in line with the MF way of analyzing things. The numbers and the trends speak for themselves. Also, thanks to the many posts that counter Mr Housel. As a wise man once told me, keep doing things the same way you have been doing them and you will definitely get the same results.

  • Report this Comment On December 08, 2012, at 9:40 AM, TMFMorgan wrote:

    There are few things I find more cowardly than writing a paragraph deeply critical of an article and author without providing a single word of rebuttal.

  • Report this Comment On December 09, 2012, at 2:44 PM, crca99 wrote:

    Mr. Housel, I appreciate and learn from your analyses. And I wish we all, including Congress and the writers above, could focus on challenging the data and not the people.

    I didn't understand this sentence, "certain Social Security inputs should be tied to inflation instead of wage growth." Each of my paychecks deducts for SS. Are you suggesting that amount should fluctuate with inflation?

  • Report this Comment On December 09, 2012, at 2:48 PM, texasflyfish wrote:

    Morgan, I agree with your points that many things can happen to alter our "future obligations" of Medicare and Social Security. I would suggest that you might want to research the current slow-down in rising medical costs. If you look at the demographics of the baby-boomers now approaching the end of their life we are in for a significant increase in overall medical costs. The majority of medical expense comes in the last 6 months of life. We have millions approaching that point. We now have an additional 15 million people covered under Obamacare. The rate of diabetes is increasing. Add these up and the overall cost of medical care is going to rise unless we alter the way we provide care.

  • Report this Comment On December 09, 2012, at 3:04 PM, TMFMorgan wrote:


    Here's an explainer from a past article:

    "Currently, initial Social Security benefits are determined with a calculation that considers how much you earned in the past adjusted for real wage growth. They call it wage indexing.

    If Social Security switched to price indexing -- a process where initial benefits are calculated by adjusting past wages only for inflation, not real wage growth -- the Social Security trust fund would never become exhausted. Ever. The program becomes permanently viable."


    Health care cost growth has slowed dramatically even as the country ages. It's not a prediction of what might happen; it's what's actually happening in real life.


  • Report this Comment On December 09, 2012, at 3:17 PM, SkepikI wrote:

    The idea that SS disability is really hard to qualify for and so all those people who are on it are REALLY SICK is the sort of circular logic that passes for thought. That "fact" is only true so long as those reviewing claims, appeals and congressional inquirys maintain high standards, dont give up or in and actually apply the tests that were once used to make it "hard". When I look at those I know who applied, the fraud cases generated, and the pitiful attitude twords frugality displayed by the average citizen and government employee, I am unable to believe its "hard". The lawyer adds on late night tv for "had a disability claim denied?" suggests otherwise as well.

  • Report this Comment On December 09, 2012, at 3:22 PM, SkepikI wrote:

    Oh, and Morgan, we haven't had ANY budget let alone a balanced one for what 3 years? 4? Why would anyone expect better results? Neither you nor anyone else including Buffet would tolerate this in your home, business or investments...but it seems to be okydoaky in government....

  • Report this Comment On December 22, 2012, at 8:35 PM, Sunny7039 wrote:

    No, Skepikl, it's not "circular logic." The toll that prolonged unemployment is taking is that it is making otherwise productive people unproductive, and it is contributing to mental illness. Real, not manufactured. Where do these people end up? On Social Security disability -- drawing from the system, instead of paying into it.

    And you claim the handful of people you "know" (or think you know), plus the lawyer ads on late night television are proof something?

    (Do you think the mentally ill are up front about how sick they are?)

    As far as talking about our budget versus the federal budget, there's no comparison, actually. We have a sovereign currency. Individual households don't. Neither do individual states, which is why their debts are different from the federal debt as well, and far more serious.

  • Report this Comment On April 03, 2015, at 7:49 PM, MNSmith wrote:

    What IS alarming is that without printing money out of thin air to inject it into our "economy", we have no economy at all.

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