Jun

14

 I often wonder why the public can be repeatedly misled by forecasts that are consistently wrong, and by forecasters that have no raison d'etre. I believe the underlying reason is that we are brought up to be insecure, and we look to others for the sources and solutions to our problems, rather than looking to ourselves.

Such forecasters as the weekly financial columnist, can be consistently wrong, (he has been bearish every week since the Dow was at 800), and yet be among the most revered and respected forecasters of all. For an answer to this, I turned to Harry Browne's book, Why the Best Laid Investment Plans Go Wrong.

I always start with the Humble Pie with Whipped Cream, on p.43, where Browne points out that the archetypal forecaster looks for anything in his forecast that happens to have the vaguest resemblance to the ultimate outcome, and then tells you in subtle ways that "he told you so" or "it was so clear from this or that indicia."

Browne reviews the yearly self-evaluation of an investment adviser, who might be prone to using levels and ranges as his weapon for misdirection:

He almost always seems to have been around 87% right … He usually cites some examples that turned out to be wrong – "I was a bit too optimistic about the high in gold, I said 450 when it was actually 406." You can see that he's being more than open and honest, and he demonstrates that his talent and even his standards tower far above yours and mine … Any man who's wrong 13% of the time, and who's that close when he's wrong must be a genius … When I check, however, I find that his original forecast was "Gold's high will be between 450 and 500," and this was made when gold was already at 406. So he missed the high by 15% and failed to note that gold actually ended the year at 350, down 15% from his forecast.

For many years, I have believed that there is little correlation between the past record of an adviser or manager and his future success. Too often, adviser get good results with small amounts of money, but the market loves to let you make a small amount of money, just to encourage you to then raise a larger investment to lose.

I believe that the period of 2000-2002, where advisers and managers made money by being hedged or net short, was a period that was particularly detrimental to investors, in that it has led so many of them to stay with those who were relatively successful in this period. These managers and advisors have lost their investors so much more money in the subsequent period, when the markets have doubled, than the amounts they made their investors when they initially began investing.

I try to eschew from forecasts on this self improvement, mutual education, deflation of ballyhoo, forum. For one, I know how fallible I am, and second, I am cognizant of the principles of ever changing cycles, (Robert Bacon.) If we did forecast, many very potent readers might mistakenly believe that what we have to forecast is better or worse than average, and in either case it would be detrimental to all concerned. Also, I would find it hard to make a forecast where I didn't have a position, because I trade often … and if I did have a position, my position could be helped along by my communiqué. Furthermore, when I got out of the position, I would be hard pressed to be so fair and honorable that I would let all of my readers extricate themselves before I did, to my disadvantage.

Of course, if I were an innocuous type, and was prone to forecast without having a position, then I would be subject to making absurd calls, without possible economic feedback, and could possibly be wrong as consistently as the weekly financial columnist, or others of his ilk. I would never know how much damage and harm and loss my forecasts might cause to those poor souls who actually placed any reliance on them.

Harry Browne's book is a treasure trove of insights as to how one can watch out for being misled, and I recommend it highly. I also encourage all of you not to rely unduly on forecasts in the future.

As an afterthought, while considering this question, I couldn't help but notice that the Fake Doctor might do well to refrain from making so many forecasts in future. His former economics forecasting company was not well known for its accuracy, and recently he has been involved in an orgy of forecasts on such things as interest rates, the extent of reserves in the earth, and the likelihood of gains in the Chinese markets.

Browne lists several criteria for evaluating the likelihood of a forecaster to stand out from the crowd, such as talent in the field, and expertise. Other caveats, like the self interest they might have in their forecasts, the ability of those who follow them to extricate safely, and the likelihood that their own expertise in areas like geology, or Asian activities, might not be greater than average, should be considered also.

Riz Din writes:

Judging by the content in much of the media, there certainly seems to be an education of insecurity taking place, well beyond the realms of the financial forecaster. Combined with the tendency to focus on the shorter-term and not to cultivate the big, broad outlook, these are good conditions in which the pessimistic forecaster can flourish. I also wonder whether their is an evolutionary component that plays a role in this game, since the average human is a risk-averse individual.

Regarding the Fake Doctor, in March of 2004, he commented on exchange rate forecasting that,

…despite extensive efforts on the part of analysts, to my knowledge, no model projecting directional movements in exchange rates is significantly superior to tossing a coin. I am aware that of the thousands who try, some are quite successful. So are winners of coin-tossing contests.

He is obviously now paid to have a view, but I wonder whether he really believes it.

Sam Humbert comments:

To all the good arguments for abstention from forecasting, I'd like to add: publicly touting one's views leads to psychological lock-in ('getting married to a position'), because changing one's mind and dumping a losing position will result in a loss of face, in addition to the (perhaps less costly and painful) loss of dollars.

Riz Din adds: 

Adding to Steve's point, the problem of 'lock-in' of public forecasts may be exacerbated by the fact that much time and money is often spent generating a forecast and thesis. From the sell-side, creating a unified thesis across research departments is no small feat, and new data that are coming days and weeks may be judged less on their own merits than on how they can be interpreted to fit with this thesis, i.e., going about things backwards. I'm guessing the ability to turn on a dime is a valuable advantage to the likes of Soros and other nimble macro players.

On a separate note, I recall when I was working in the prediction business. It would be about a month or so before the start of a new financial year when clients would call asking for various forecasts for the year ahead, sometimes even further out. I'm sure many of these folk knew better, but they did it any way. They had spreadsheets to fill in.

It reminds me of story about the general who told his team of weather forecasters, "I appreciate being informed that your forecasts are no better than random, but please keep sending them on, as the army needs your predictions for planning purposes."

Charles Humbert extends:

There are three classes of money managers:

1) If your edge is unreliable, or modest to nonexistent, then your best approach is maximum publicity. If you're good at promotion this may lead to much greater benefits than you will derive purely from money management.

2) If your edge is positive but not spectacular, you should try to manage OPM. In this case a little bragging is part of the game; but it must be done with discretion. The goal is to be credible thus attracting investors and increasing your earnings in direct proportion.

3) In the rare case where your edge is outstanding, shut up and trade. If at all possible trade only your own money. Resist the temptation to make your brilliance visible to all. Always keep in mind the goal, which is to last as long as possible before the competition catches up.

Trading is a cutthroat business. If you make it easier for your opponents you eventually make it harder for yourself. The only reason for making public forecasts is to feed your ego. But those who deserve it most are the least well-served by such promotion. 

Nigel Davies writes: 

One of the tactics that can be used for nobbling a tournament leader is to congratulate him on his fine performance and asking what the secret is. The self-consciousness and commitment induced by a reply can take them out of 'the zone' with a bump. Not that I'd use anything like this myself, it's just something to watch out for if one is in the lead.

I think a similar effect can be at work when players write books. Besides making them a target should they publish anything too valuable, there's a certain inflexibility that can be induced by the 'lock-in' affect of going to print. 

J T Holley contributes:

There needs to be if not already a study of the "Power of Anonymity".

It is the spirit of the AA program and one that Mr. Bill must have suggested or he saw this same powerful principle in its possession.

Having quit smoking numerous times, I know that I tried I didn't lick it until I remained anonymous about my intentions. The minute you tell people they will ask you when you bump into them, "still cravin'?" "want to smoke?" "how you doin'?" Even with their good intentions the first thing you do is start thinking about smoking and it simply fuels the fire. Maybe this is why you shouldn't share speculation positions as well.

Doing a quick count I can think of very few times where I've gone out and said something in the touting category and come across a winner. Yet being the anonymous I have risen to the occasion and accomplished magnificent goals. Card games and betting are the horrible exception because one must always be vocal with intentions and can never be silent.

If you look at the risk/reward of touting vs. non-touting it seems so unaligned to me. Even if you tout and succeed then you still lose it seems. You are disliked, set up to be the "one" to knock down and most of the time left doubting the outcome or feeling a Nietzschean withdrawal. Does touting burn unwarranted energy and power as well?

The anonymous one walks freely and has the power. Think of sports when something great happens and the comment is "who was that guy?" This years Masters is a good example.

I think anonymity has got to be the most powerful principle next to compounding.

Anthony Tadlock remarks:

It seems that forecasters and others with the most bearish and pessimistic outlooks don't actually own any stocks and generally never have.

Steve Wisdom replies:

I especially like these standard tropes from bear newsletters: "We advise you to liquidate all stocks," and "We advise you to take profits on stocks now,"… Begging the question: ‘What stocks? If I believed your newsletter, I'd have sold all my stocks years ago.’


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