Monday, January 28, 2008

The Market Prediction Game: Here We Go Again...

There's been a lot of activity in the markets so far in 2008. We've seen uncommon (though harldly unseen) volatility. And with volatility comes one of "The Street's" favorite pastimes; The Market Prediction Game.

But how do these predictions tend to pan out? With talking heads doing their talking thing everyday, it's hard to keep track of the daily (hourly?) deluge of prognostications.

But when we do collect the information, it is telling. The Wall Street Journal surveyed top economists semi-annually, to get forecasts on what bonds were going to do over the next 6 months. The data go back to 1982.

The experts (intelligent people all, to be sure), were wrong in the predictions of the direction bond yields 66% of the time. That is to say, when asked 6 months from now will the yield on a 10 Year Treasury be A) Higher or B) Lower... they got it right 1 out of 3 times. (Source: Davis Advisors)

Do you realize how bad that is?

Employing a black-tailed marmoset to throw darts at a board marked "higher" and "lower" would be a better predictor!

MARKETPSYCH LEGAL COUNSEL DISCLAIMER: does NOT promote or otherwise endorse the practice of marmoset dart throwing. Sure, it's fun. But that's beside the point. Arming small, wiry primates with sharp objects for throwing is dangerous and most likely illegal in the US (with the possible exception of licensed establishments in the state of Nevada). Marketpsych partners are NOT responsible for damages suffered by those engaging in this activity.

The fact is, human beings are notoriously lousy predictors of future market events. A study by George Wolford and associates at Dartmouth College found that even rats and pigeons outpeform humans in short-term market prediction. (No word on marmosets).

This does not mean the market doesn't have cycles, or that patterns don't emerge. Indeed, to be wrong 2 out of 3 times (as the economists were on bond yields) lends credence to the notion that the predictions are NOT random. It points to the central theme of short-term reactivity that seems to dominate investing patterns - something we call Whack-A-Mole Syndrome. (TM)

My colleague, Dr. Richard Peterson, has written about it here in his superior book, and even developed the Marketpsych Fear Index which tracks how investor emotion is often an inverse predictor.

But the point is you don't need a crystal ball to be a succesful investor. You need a few simple but undervalued qualities. 1) The ability to recognize companies with proven records. 2) The ability to recognize when their stocks are at an attractive valuation vs. earnings. 3) The discipline to invest your money in them... and not monkey with it. (pardon the pun).

But we can't help ourselves. With so much information available, with so much money on the line, we love to engage in the Prediction Game. (By the way, Pats 34 - Giants 14 - you heard it here first!).

The Market Prediction Game reminds me of the end of the classic 80's flick, War Games (starring a young Matthew Broderick), when "Joshua", the American military super-computer aborts a nuclear launch on the Soviet Union because it realizes that it would result in mutually assured destruction. The computer learns the folly of the eponymous "War Game".

"Strange game. The only winning move is not to play."

Indeed, Joshua. So don't play.

How about buying some great companies cheap?

Or perhaps a nice game of chess, instead?


Pips-on-my-lips said...

This is my first visit to this blog and it was delightful. I am assuming the rat/pigeon comparison involved the utilization of "smart" rats and "brilliant" pigeons and not your every day run-of-the-mill street rat or common (carrier) pigeon, right? I should certainly hope so.

Frank Murtha, Ph.D. said...

Thanks for your comments. This qualifies as the latest response ever to a blog post. In fact, we were talking about "garden variety" rats and pigeons. It likely would work with other (less lab friendly animals as well). The reason is that these species' reward systems are wired in, for a lack of a better phrase, more pure manner. Rats and pigeons simply accumulate the knowledge that one choice tends to lead to more rewards. Cheers.