If We Had A Chief Economist We Would Have to Pay Them

Here we are at quarter end and, get ready, here come all the market predictions from Wall Street Chief Economists and strategy professionals.

The title of this post speaks to our feelings about these market prognostications.  It comes from the founder of Neuberger Berman, Roy Neuberger.  When I joined Neuberger Berman years ago, I had the opportunity to meet with Roy and speak with him about his philosophy, which included a general skepticism about those who made market predictions.  For much of firm’s history, Neuberger Berman never had a Chief Economist or firm-wide strategist.  When asked about this, Roy would famously, and gruffly say,

“If I had one I would have to pay them.  And, if I pay someone, I feel compelled to listen to them.”

In a fun way, he was saying that he did not think Wall Street economists were worth much.

Why do I write this particular piece with the title listed above?  

Well, yesterday offered yet another example of Wall Street economists having about as much success as people who fill out NCAA basketball brackets at the start of the tournament.

Yesterday’s March Madness was the Non Farm Payrolls release.  Wall Street was predicting that the economy would create 244,00 jobs.  How did they do?  The number came out this morning at 126,000 (yes, almost half). 

Unfortunately, this happens often.  Another example was Retail Sales in February.  Somehow, it seems that economists had not broken away from being anchored on their crystal balls to see the record amounts of snow on the ground across much of the country and were projecting an increase of approximately 0.4%.  The actual number: -0.6%.

Much has been written about the inaccuracy of economic and market forecasts to include a recent study by a Federal Reserve bank on the prowess of their own forecasting.  Below is a quote from a report published in February of this year by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco (FRBSF) based on a study of the Federal Reserve Open Market Committee’s Summary of Economic Projections (SEP):

“Over the past seven years, many growth forecasts, including the SEP’s…, have been too optimistic. In particular, the SEP forecast (1) did not anticipate the Great Recession that started in December 2007, (2) underestimated the severity of the downturn once it began, and (3) consistently over-predicted the speed of the recovery that started in June 2009.”

Beyond words, the below chart says it all.

Capture

The following is how the Fed explains this illustration:

“Figure 1 shows that the SEP growth forecast for 2008 never turned negative. At the time, the mainstream view was that the U.S. economy would avoid a recession despite the ongoing housing market turmoil. The actual growth rate for 2008 turned out to be -2.8% (the largest annual decline since 1946). The SEP growth forecast for 2009 did not turn negative until January 2009…, after the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy in September 2008.”

For those you wish to read the full report, it can be found by clicking on the following link:

FRBSF Economic Letter – Persistent Overoptimism About Economic Growth - February 2, 2015

Some might say, “recent predictions don’t tell the full story”, “the 2008-2009 financial crisis was hard to predict” or, my favorite, “economics are indeed hard to predict, but with hard work we can accurately estimate future earnings”. 

Unfortunately, independent analysis of analysts’ estimates and projections paints a consistent picture.  They are often wrong at the wrong time.

As an example, McKinsey & Co. (one of the most respected consulting firms in the World), produced a study in 2001 about the accuracy of earnings estimates, which was then updated in 2010.  The following quote summarizes their findings:

“Analysts, we found, were typically overoptimistic, slow to revise their forecasts to reflect new economic conditions, and prone to making increasingly inaccurate forecasts when economic growth declined.  On average, analysts’ forecasts have been almost 100 percent too high.”

Like the FRBSF chart, pictures can speak louder than words.  In the chart below, the light green line represents Wall Street earnings forecasts.  The blue line reflects what actually happened.

Capture 3

The full McKinsey & Co. reports can be found at the following:

Equity Analysts: Still Too Bullish – McKinsey Quarterly - April 2010

Prophets and Profits – McKinsey Quarterly - October 2001

What the charts above highlight, and the McKinsey study has twice observed, is that Wall Street economists and analysts can be herd animals and get anchored on a trend.  They tend to be late to revise up, late to revise down and tend to move in groups.  

Beyond anchoring, I believe this is also due to pain avoidance.  It is painful to be right early on Wall Street.  If an analyst is out in front and seems to be wrong for a quarter or two, the pain in terms of job security and reduced bonus potential can be high.

In writing this post, I am not suggesting that we should not follow useful information being published or decline to strive to help our partners make informed decisions based upon all of the available information.  I am just cautioning that we should not get overly anchored on estimates of the future and fall into the “often wrong but never in doubt” ways of traditional Wall Street marketers.

Versus hiring a Chief Economist or strategist, or paying Wall Street to provide us with research that the evidence consistently says is wrong, at Fiduciary Wealth Partners we try to stay anchored on Roy Neuberger’s old line. 

Why?  Because the evidence tells us that market predictions are more often wrong than right.

So, when you turn on the financial press in the morning or get the latest research from your favorite firm, try to take it with a grain of salt.  

We encourage our partners, and try hard ourselves, to avoid the emotion of day-to-day market swings, discount market predictions and stick to long-term plans.

If we can, and it is not easy, I am confident that we will be better investors and fiduciaries.

For more on the evidence-based approach that drives much of what I write above, please visit our Values, Philosophy and Approach, or see our recently posted Book List.

And as always, feedback is valued and appreciated.

 

Preston D. McSwain is a Managing Partner and Founder of Fiduciary Wealth Partners, an SEC registered investment advisor forming fiduciary wealth partnerships with clients, professional colleagues, and the community.  To see more of his posts and follow him on Linked In and Twitter please visit the following:

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