Posts tagged ‘strategists’
“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.
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 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.
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.
We have all heard about the famous Aesop fable about The Boy Who Cried Wolf. In that story, a little boy amuses himself by tricking others into falsely believing a wolf is attacking his flock of sheep. After running to the boy’s rescue multiple times, the villagers became desensitized to the boy’s cries for help. The boy’s pleas ultimately get completely ignored by the villagers despite an eventual real wolf attack that kills the boy’s flock of sheep.
Mauldin: The Man Who Cries Bear
John Mauldin, former print shop professional and current perma-bear investment strategist, unfortunately seems to have taken a page from Aesop’s book by consistently crying for a market collapse. After spending many years wrongly forecasting a bear market, his dependable pessimism eventually paid dividends in 2008. Unfortunately for him, rather than reverse his downbeat outlook, he stepped on the pessimism pedal just as the equity markets have exploded upwards more than +80% from the March lows of last year. Mauldin is widely followed in part to his thoughtful pieces and intriguing contributing writers, but as some behavioral finance students have recognized, being bearish or cautious on the markets always sounds smarter than being bullish. I’m not so sure how smart Mauldin will sound if he’s wrong on the direction of the next 80% move?
The Challenged Predictor
I find it interesting that a man who freely admits to his challenged prediction capabilities continues to make bold assertive forecasts. Mauldin freely confesses in his writings about his inability to manage money and make correct market forecasts, but that hasn’t slowed down the pessimism express. Just two years ago as the financial crisis was unfolding, Mauldin admits to his poor fortune telling skills with regards to his annual forecast report each January:
“ I was wrong (as usual) about the stock markets.”
Here’s Mauldin explaining why he decided to switch from investing real money to the simulated version of investment strategy and economic analysis:
“I wanted to begin to manage money on my own… I found out as much about myself as I did about market timing. What I found out was that I did not have the emotional personality (the stomach?) to directly time the markets with someone else’s money… I simply worried too much over each move of the tape.”
Apparently timing the market is not so simple? Readers of Investing Caffeine understand my feelings about market timing (read Market Timing Treadmill piece) – it’s a waste of time. Market followers are much better off listening to investors who have successfully navigated a wide variety of market cycles (see Investing Caffeine Profiles), rather than strategists who are constantly changing positions like a flag in the wind. I wonder why you never hear Warren Buffett ever make a market prediction or throw out a price target on the Dow Jones or S&P 500 indexes? Maybe buying good businesses or investments at good prices, and owning them for longer than a nanosecond is a strategy that can actually work? Sure seems to work for him over the last few years.
When You’re Wrong
Typically a strategist utilizes two approaches when they are wrong:
1) Convert to Current Consensus: Most strategists change their opinion to match the current consensus thinking. Or as Mauldin described last year, “I expect that this year will bring a few surprises that will cause me to change my opinions yet again. When the facts change, I will try and change with them.” The only problem is…the facts change every day (see also Nouriel Roubini).
2) Push Prediction Out: The other technique is to ignore the forecasting mistake and merely push out the timing (see also Peter Schiff). A simple example would be of Mr. Mauldin extending his recession prediction made last April, “We are going to pay for that with a likely dip back into a recession in 2010,” to his current view made a few weeks ago, “I put the odds of a double-dip recession in 2011 at better than 50-50.”
More Mauldin Mistake Magic
Well maybe I’m just being overly critical, or distorting the facts? Let’s take a look at some excerpts from Mauldin’s writings:
A. January 10, 2009 (S&P @ 890):
Prediction: “I now think we will be in recession through at least 2009 before we begin a recovery….We could see a tradable rally in the next few months, but at the very least test the lows this summer, if not set new lows….It takes a lot of buying to make a bull market. It only takes an absence of buying to make a bear market.”
Outcome: S&P 500 today at 1,179, up +32%. Oops, maybe the timing of his recovery forecast was a little off?
B. February 14, 2009 (S&P @ 827):
Prediction/Advice: “Let me reiterate my continued warning: this is not a market you want to buy and hold from today’s level. This is just far too precarious an economic and earnings environment.”
Outcome: S&P 500 up +45%. You pay a cherry price for certainty and consensus.
C. April 10, 2009 (S&P @ 856):
Prediction: “All in all, the next few years are going to be a very difficult environment for corporate earnings. To think we are headed back to the halcyon years of 2004-06 is not very realistic. And if you expect a major bull market to develop in this climate, you are not paying attention.” On the economy he adds, “We are going to pay for that with a likely dip back into a recession in 2010.”
Outcome: S&P 500 up +38%, with the economy currently in recovery. Interestingly, his comments on corporate earnings in February 2009 referenced an estimate of $55 in S&P 2010. Now that we are 14 months closer to the end of 2010, not only is the consensus estimate much firmer, but the 2010 S&P estimate presently stands at approximately $75 today, about +36% higher than Mauldin was anticipating last year.
D. May 2, 2009 (S&P @ 878):
Prediction: “This rally has all the earmarks of a major short squeeze. ..When the short squeeze is over, the buying will stop and the market will drop. Remember, it takes buying and lot of it to move a market up but only a lack of buying to create a bear market.”
Outcome: S&P 500 up +36%.
Now that we have entered a new year and experienced an +80% move in the market, certainly Mauldin must feel a little more comfortable about the current environment? Apparently not.
E. April 2, 2010 (S&P @ 1178):
Prediction: “ I think it is very possible we’ll see another lost decade for stocks in the US. If we do have a recession next year, the world markets are likely to fall in sympathy with ours.”
Previous Mauldin Gems
Here are few more gloomy gems from Mauldin’s bearish toolbox of yester-year:
2005: “The market is a sideways to down market, with the risk to the downside as we get toward the end of the year and a possible recession on the horizon in 2006. And not to put too fine a point on it, I still think we are in a long term secular bear market.” Reality: S&P 500 up +5% for the year and up a few more years after that.
2006: “This year I think the market actually ends the year down, and by at least 10% or more during the year. Reality: S&P 500 up +14% (excluding dividends).
2007: Mauldin’s rhetoric was tamed in light of poor predictions, so rhetoric switches to a “Goldilocks recession” and a mere -10-20% range correction. He goes on to dismiss a deep bear market, “In future letters we will look at why a deep (the 40% plus that is typical in recession) stock market bear is not as likely.” Reality: S&P 500 up +5%. Looks like the writing on the wall for 2008 turned out a bit worse than he expected.
2008: Sticking to soft landing outlook Mauldin states, “I think this will be a mild recession … I don’t think we are looking at anything close to the bear market of 2000-2001.” Uggh. Ultimately, the bear market turned out to be the worst market since 1973-1974 – his prediction was just off by a few decades. Reality: S&P 500 down -37%.
Lessons Learned from Market Strategists
I certainly don’t mean to demonize John Mauldin because his writings are indeed very thoughtful, interesting and include provocative financial topics. But put in the wrong hands, his opinions (and dozens of other strategists’ views) can be extremely dangerous for the average investor trying to follow the ever-changing judgments of so-called expert strategists. To Mauldin’s credit, his writings are archived publicly for everyone to sift through – unfortunately the media and many average investors have short memories and do not take the time to hold strategists accountable for their false predictions. Although, Iike Warren Buffett, I do not make market timing predictions or forecast short-term market trends, I see no problem in strategists making bold or inaccurate forecasts, as long as they are held responsible. Every investor makes mistakes, unfortunately, strategist predictions are usually not readily available for analysis, unlike tangible investment manager performance numbers. When forecasting lightning strikes and extreme bets win, every newspaper, radio show, and media outlet has no problem of placing these soothsayers on a pedestal. Thanks to the law of large numbers and the constantly shifting markets, there will always be a few outliers making correct calls on bold predictions. Who knows, maybe Mauldin will be the next CNBC guru du jour in the future for predicting another lost decade of equity market performance (see Lost Decade article)?
Regardless of your views on the market, the next time you hear a financial strategist make a bold forecast, like John Mauldin crying wolf, I urge you to not go running with the motivation to alter your investment portfolio. I suppose the time to become frightened and drive the REAL wolf (bear market) away will occur when consistently pessimistic strategists like Mauldin turn more optimistic. Until then, tread lightly when it comes to acting on financial market forecasts and stick to listening to long-term, successful investors that have invested their own money through all types of market cycles.
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 positions in 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.