Friday, January 16, 2009

Yeah, But Are You "Sure-Sure"?

Ivory soap is famously 99.44% pure. I like that extra 44/100s. It gives me peace of mind.

If only financial forecasters would follow the Ivory model in their predictions. I've been hearing/reading/seeing a lot of expert predictions these days. New calendar years and volatile markets seem to attract them.

Now, let's be clear, I don't have a crystal ball. (I do have a Magic 8-Ball. But when I asked it if the Jets would make the playoffs it told me "Signs Point to Yes." So I'm thinking it's busted.)

The only predictions I will make with any confidence are these:

All consensus predictions will be too narrow in scope.

People will overuse artificial parameters in the form of round numbers and calendar years when formulating those overly narrow predictions.

Okay, I cheated.

Those aren't predictions. They're observations of human behavior that are among the most reliable you will ever find.

How reliable? Research into the area that behavioral finance folks call "overconfidence" indicate that when people are asked to predict a range in which they are 99% confident results will fall (i.e., a 99% confidence interval) they are correct 80% of the time.

Now at first blush, that may not seem so awful. 80% vs 90-something%...what's the big deal?

But it is awful.

Truly, horribly, make-you-want-to-toss-your-cookies awful.


Think of the corresponding behavior in light of such predictions. When we're 99% of something, it's basically as close to saying we're absolutely certain as we're going to get.

You could go Ivory Soap and say 99.44% certain but when we blurt out, "I'm 99% sure that won't happen", we're essentially saying, "No shot in hell."

That's dangerous even when it's TRUE.

Once in a hundred years was the standards to which they built the New Orleans levees. That works fine... right up until your neighborhood has to be airlifted off the rooftops.

But with market predictions, it's 20x worse. Events that people - and this includes experts, mind you -- say would happen every 100 years (1%) - happen EVERY FIVE YEARS (20%).

Let's say you listen to a more conservative expert predictor. He/she is twice as good and are accurate 90% of the time.

That STILL means every 10 years we're going to experience something that "nobody" saw coming.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote a book called The Black Swan. (It's not as good a book as Richard Peterson's Inside the Investor's Brain, but it's certainly worth reading).

Where are we seeing such predictions these days?

Oh... everywhere.

"Where do you believe the S & P will be a year from now?"

"How high do you think unemployment can go?"

"What are the chances you will have to cut your dividend, Mr. CEO?"

Remember, fellow investors, fight the danger of narrow framing and don't be drawn into sharing the outlook of those who look at the horizon through a key hole and tell you wide it is.

We have no reliable way of knowing how bad (or how good) it's going to get.

The key is to expand the scope of expectations and to have plans in place for even the most unlikely-seeming scenarios.

Think "Ivory Soap".

And good luck.


(If you are interested in a MarketPsych seminar, please feel free to contact us at I'm 99.44% sure you will find our seminars valuable.)

CEO's do it.

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