Market forecasting: an exercise in futility
This is the time of year for annual reckonings and predictions by strategists and analysts, illustrating little more than that they know what pleases their employers and that their powers of prognostication are nonexistent. And yet, full of bravado and confidence, they explain what stocks to buy, when a recession will come along, what the Federal Reserve is going to do, and when the market is going to tank. Truth be told, that last one is less of a prediction these days and more a case of real-time reporting.
These forecasts are, for the most part, exercises in futility.
But first, a reminder: the problem with forecasts goes beyond their mere lack of accuracy. My critique is with the underlying cognitive and philosophical failings that are associated with the entire forecasting industry: a lack of humility, the assumption of a skill set clearly not in evidence, and most damning of all, a failure to recognise the randomness of the world at large.
Most insidious are the forecasts designed to separate the suckers from their dollars.
So, in order to remind you why you should be ignoring the 2019 forecasts, let’s consider some of the more egregious predictions of 2018:
Bitcoin: the spectrum of predictions ran from the sublime to the criminally negligent to the utterly insane. It got so bad that a website was set up to track all of the Bitcoin prophesies. My colleague Nick Maggiulli notes that chaotic systems can’t be predicted, as they are subject to the Three Body Problem (and its variants).
Fundstrat’s Tom Lee’s 2018 forecast for $25,000 Bitcoin was reduced last month to $15,000 by year-end. The cryptocurrency was trading close to $4,000 yesterday. As foolish as that sounds, it was modest compared to the rest of the asylum. Michael Novogratz forecast that “$40,000 was possible by the end of 2018”. Kay Van-Petersen of Saxo Bank predicted Bitcoin would rise to $50,000 to $100,000 by the end of this year. John McAfee, the eccentric tech entrepreneur, has called for $1 million Bitcoin by 2020. Analogising crypto to the internet, Tim Draper doubles McAfee, coming in at $2 million.
All of these are notable not just for being wrong, but for their sheer recklessness.
Gold: before all the gold bugs migrated to Bitcoin, the precious metal was where they went to make their bad forecasts. Peter Schiff has been forecasting gold at $5,000 an ounce since at least 2010, based on his prediction of a huge surge in inflation. (It now trades at about $1,238.) Neither occurred.
Jim Rickards, former general counsel at Long-Term Capital Management, came up with a $10,000 price target. To be fair, he said the same thing would happen by the end of 2017. Jim Rogers one-upped everybody, declaring in August that “gold could turn into a bubble”. It hasn’t. But the sun still has another 5 billion years of hydrogen left, so perhaps one day it might.
Markets: stock forecasts typically come from strategists at bigger firms, covering a modest range from a little too bullish to a little too bearish. Career risk tends to keep equity strategists more circumspect than the Bitcoin and gold crowd. Typically, these forecasts are for continued gains or solid growth, or softness and modest corrections — but that’s before we get to the outliers.
My favourite cranks are way outside that broad range. There are too many to note, but perhaps the most notable offender is former Reagan White House budget director David Stockman.
He has been more than perennially bearish — he predicted a market crash in 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019. Good rule of thumb: if you make the same call very year, even if it eventually comes true, you get no credit for it.
Even the official guardians of the economy — central banks — do little better.
My advice when you see a forecast: mark it down on a calendar or reminder programme (I use the app Followupthen.com), then come back to it a year later. This lets you review how good or bad it was. It’s a great exercise in accountability.
Most of the time, the results reveal why spending too much time either paying attention to — or making — forecasts is mostly wasted effort.
• Barry Ritholtz is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He founded Ritholtz Wealth Management and is the author of Bailout Nation
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