Strategist Predictions and MacGyver Credo
“Only a fool is sure of anything, a wise man keeps on guessing.” – MacGyver
We have gotten to the part of the year when strategists gather for the annual dart throwing ritual of 2011 price targets. S&P projections get chucked around with the hopes of sticking – like cooked spaghetti to the wall. MacGyver appreciates the fine art of guessing, and so do Wall Street strategists.
How the Game’s Played
You don’t have to be a brain surgeon to figure out how the Wall Street astrology game works. When in doubt, just say the market will be up +10% next year. Hmmm, why +10%?
1) Well, first of all, these strategists work for employers who are in the business of hawking financial products and services to the masses, so if you want to generate revenues, you better attempt to line up some believers with some rosy scenarios.
2) History is on the strategists’ side. Equity markets move up about 70% of the time, so why not make an optimistic bet. Data from Crestmont Research and Roger Ibbotson support the average return over the last 100 years or so has averaged approximately +10% (with a lot of peaks and valleys). Obviously, that hasn’t been the case over the last decade. The PIMCO bond brothers of Bill Gross and Mohamed El-Erian blame the “New Normal” environment despite recently raising their 2011 GDP forecasts to a “Less Sluggish New Normal.” More likely, the decade of the 2000s is more like the “Old Normal” of boom-busts like we experienced in the 1930s and 1970s.
3) The other cardinal rule to be followed religiously: Forecasts made by any Wall Street type need to be made in tight packs like a herd. There is comfort in numbers, and why in the world would someone risk embarrassment or career risk. Fat paychecks abound for these strategists and hugging consensus views is OK, as long as a logical story can be patched together in explaining it.
With all this discussion about +10% average stock market returns, guess what type of returns this year’s Barron’s strategist survey is forecasting? You guessed it…+10% – what a shocker! Let’s hope this guess is more accurate than Barron’s +10% strategist return forecast for 2008 (S&P 500 was actually down -38.5% in 2008). Strategists don’t always get it wrong – the sanguine +12% outlook for 2010 is basically spot on with a few days left in the year. The sanguine 2002 outlook of +13%, however, was about -35% too sanguine (S&P plummeted about -23% that year).
Although most strategists feign absolute knowledge and precision, history shows these projections rarely prove accurate. Like predicting weather, guessers may get the long-term climate forecast fairly close, but the short-term estimates are generally pure speculation. In my book, 12 months is very short-term. Famed investor and author Charles Ellis captures the challenge of market forecasts:
“Predicting the stock market roughly is not hard, but predicting it accurately is truly impossible.”
I ascribe to the Peter Lynch view that speculating about the direction of the market is futile:
“If you spend more than 13 minutes analyzing economic and market forecasts, you’ve wasted 10 minutes.”
Kass Gets Hall Pass
Even though I may relish in flogging strategists, I provide certain professionals a hall pass under the following conditions:
- The educated guesser is putting real, hard-earned money behind their assertions.
- The guesses do not hug a tightly-knit herd.
- Guesses are made transparent and guessers make themselves accountable for bold statements.
- Those making guesses freely admit to the fallibility of making non-consensus suppositions.
One man whom embodies these principles is famed hedge fund manager Doug Kass, whom I have written about on several occasions (read more). Not only are Kass’s 2011 predictions provocative, they are also entertaining. His self proclaimed 40% batting average in 2010 may be a little higher than reality, but I will let you be the judge of his 2010 calls on the dollar, gold, Fed actions, Iran, Goldman Sachs, utilities, Warren Buffett, mutual funds, short-selling, New York Yankees, and more (read full 2010 Kass list).
The herd of strategists may continue having trouble making accurate market forecasts in the future, but perhaps resourcefully adding some duct tape and a Swiss Army knife to their repertoire like MacGyver will help improve accuracy. If not, rest assured, the strategists will sleep well making their +10% forecasts while continuing to collect big fat paychecks.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
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