Professional Double-Dip Guesses are “Probably” Wrong
As you may have noticed from previous articles, I take a significant grain (or pound) of salt when listening to economists and strategists like Peter Schiff, Nouriel Roubini, Meredith Whitney, John Mauldin, et.al. Typically, these financial astrologists weave together convincing, elaborate, grand guesses that extrapolate every short-term, fleeting economic data point into an imposing (or magnificent) long-term secular trend.
With all this talk of “double-dip” recession, I cannot help but notice the latest verbal tool implemented by every Tom, Dick, and Harry economist when discussing this topic… the word “probability”. Rather than honestly saying I have no clue on what the economy will do, many strategists place a squishy numerical “probability” around the possibility of a “double-dip” recession consistent with the news du jour. Over recent weeks, unstable U.S. economic data have been coming in softer than expectations. So, guess what? Economists have become more pessimistic about the economy and raised the “probability” of a double dip recession. Thanks Mr. Professor “Obvious!” I’m going to go out on a limb, and say the probability of a double-dip recession will likely go down if economic data improves. Geez…thanks.
Here is a partial list of double-dip “probabilities” spouted out by some well-known and relatively unknown economists:
- Robert Shiller (Professor at Yale University): “The probability of that kind of double-dip is more than 50 percent.”
- Bill Gross (Founder/Managing Director at PIMCO): The New York Times described Gross’s double-dip radar with the following, “He put the probability of a recession — and of an accompanying bout of deflation — at 25 to 35 percent.”
- Mohamed El-Erian (CEO of PIMCO): “If you wonder how meaningful 25 per cent is, ask yourself the following question: if I offered you that I drive you back to work, but there’s a one in four chance that I get into a big accident, would you come with me?”
- David Rosenberg (Chief Economist at Gluskin Chef): In a recent newsletter, Rosenberg has raised the odds of a double-dip recession from 45 per cent a month ago to 67 per cent currently.
- Nouriel Roubini (Professor at New York University): “As early as August 2009 I expressed concern in a Financial Times op-ed about the risk of a double-dip recession, even if my benchmark scenario characterizes the risk of a W as still a low probability event (20% probability) as opposed to a 60% probability for a U-shaped recovery.”
- Robert Reich (Former Secretary of Labor): According to Martin Fridson, Global Credit Strategist at BNP Paribas, Robert Reich has assigned a 50% probability of a double dip, even if Reich believes we are actually in one “Long Dipper.”
- Graeme Leach (Chief Economist at the Institute of Directors): “I would give a 40 per cent probability to what I call ‘one L of a recovery’, in other words a fairly weak flattish cycle over the next 12 months. A double-dip recession would get a 40 per cent probability as well.”
- Ed McKelvey (Sr. U.S. Economist at Goldman Sachs): “We think the probability is unusually high — between 25 percent and 30 percent — but we do not see double dip as the base case.”
- Avery Shenfeld (Chief Economist at CIBC): “The probability estimate is likely more consistent with a slowdown rather than a true double-dip recession but, given the uncertainties, fiscal tightening ahead and the potential for a slow economy to be vulnerable to shocks, we will keep an eye on our new indicator nevertheless.” This guy can’t even be pinned down for a number!
- National Institute for Economic and Social Research (NIESR) : “The probability of seeing a contraction of output in 2011 as compared to 2010 has risen from 14 per cent to 19 per cent.”
- New York Fed Treasury Spread Model (see chart below): Professor Mark J. Perry notes, “For July 2010, the recession probability is only 0.06% and by a year from now in June of next year the recession probability is only slightly higher, at only 0.3137% (less than 1/3 of 1%).”
Listening to these economic armchair quarterbacks predict the direction of the financial markets is as painful as watching Jim Gray’s agonizing hour-long interview of Lebron James’s NBA contract decision (see also Lebron: Buy, Sell, or Hold?). Just what I want to hear – a journalist that probably has never dribbled a ball in his life, inquiring about cutting edge questions like whether Lebron is still biting his nails? Most of these economists are no better than Jim Gray. In many instances these professionals don’t invest in accordance with their recommendations and their probability estimates are about as reliable as an estimate of the volatility index (see chart below) or a prediction about Lindsay Lohan’s legal system status.
I can virtually guarantee you at least one of the previously mentioned economists will be correct on their forecasts. That isn’t much of an achievement, if you consider all the strategists’ guesses effectively cover every and any economic scenario possible. If enough guesses are thrown out there, one is bound to stick. And if they’re wrong, no problem, the economists can simply blame randomness of the lower probability event as the cause of the miscue.
Unlike Wayne Gretzky, who said, “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been,” economists skate right next to the puck. Because the economic data is constantly changing, this strategy allows every forecaster to constantly change their outlook in lock-step with the current conditions. This phenomenon is like me looking at the dark clouds outside my morning window and predicting a higher probability of rain, or conversely, like me looking at the blue skies outside and predicting a higher chance of sunshine.
Using this “probability” framework is a convenient B.S. means of saving face if a directional guess is wrong. By continually adjusting probability scenarios with the always transforming economic data, the strategist can persistently waffle with the market sentiment vicissitudes.
What would be very refreshing to see is a strategist on CNBC who declares he was dead wrong on his prediction, but acknowledges the world is inherently uncertain and confesses that nobody can predict the market with certainty. Instead, the rent-o-strategists consistently change their predictions in such a manner that it is difficult to measure their accuracy – especially when there is rarely hard numbers to hold these professional guessers accountable for.
Economists and strategists may be well-intentioned people, just as is the schizophrenic trading advice of Jim Cramer of CNBC’s Mad Money, but the “probability” of them being right over relevant investing time horizons is best left to an experienced long-term investor that understands the pitfalls of professional guessing.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
*DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in GS, NYT or any security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.