Monday, 22 June 2009

Learn from the Worst: The Futility of Forecasting

Having established that most investors - professionals and amateur - underperform the market, the obvious question is, why?

How can so many smart people fare so poorly?

Perhaps, the greatest reason, is the fact that we are human. The way we think, the way we perceive things and feel emotions - has become a major topic in the investing world in recent years. Behavioural finance and neuroeconomics examine how psychology and physiology affect the way we deal with our money. And in general, the findings show that we humans are investing in the stock market with the deck stacked against us.

Zweig authored a book on neureconomics titled Your Money and Your Brain. One of the main points Zweig stressed is that human beings are excellent at quickly recognizing patterns in their environment. Being able to do so has been a key to our species' survival, enabling our ancestors to evade capture, find shelter, and learn how to plant the right crops in the right places. Those are all good, and often essential, things to know.

When it comes to investing, this ability ends up being a liability. "Our incorrigible search for patterns leads us to assume that order exists where it often doesn't. Almost everyone has an opinion about whether the Dow will go up or down from here, or whether a particular stock will continue to rise. And everyone wants to believe that the financial future can be foretold." But the truth, is that it can't - at least not in the day to day, short-term way that most investors think it can.

Everyday on Wall Street, something happens that makes people think they should invest more money in the stock market, or, conversely, makes them pull money out of the market. Earnings reports, analysts' rating changes, a report about how retail sales were last month - all o fthese things can send the market into a sudden surge or a precipitous decline. The reason: People view each of these items as a harbinger of what is to come, both for the economy and the stock market.

On the surface, it may sound reasonable to try to weigh each of these factors when considering which way the market will go. But when we look deeper, this line of thinking has a couple of major problems.

  • It discounts the incredible complexity of the stock market. There are so many factors that go into the market's day-to-day machinations; the earnings reports, analysts' ratings, and retail sales figures mentioned above are just the tip of the iceberg. Inflation readings, consumer spending reports, economic growth figures, fuel prices, recommendations of well-known pundits, news about a company's new products, the decisions of institutions to buy and sell because they have hit an internal taget or need to free up cash for redemptions - all of these and much, much more can also impact how stocks mvoe from day to day, or even hour to hour or minute to minute. One stock can even move simply because another stock in its industry reports its quarterly earnings. Very large, prominent companies such as Wal-Mart or IBM are considered bellwethers in their industries, for example, and a good or bad earnings report from them is often interpreted - sometimes inaccurately - as a sign of how the rest of companies in their industries will perform.

  • When it comes to the monthly, quarterly, or annual economic and earnings reports, the market doesn't just move on the raw data in the reports; quite often, it moves more on how that data compares to what analysts had projected it to be . A company can post horrible earnings for a quarter, and its stock price migh rise because the results actually exceeded analysts' expectations. Or conversely, it can announce earnings growth of 200%, but fall if analysts were expecting 225% growth.

Here is one more wrench: the fact that good economic news doesn't even always portend stock gains, just as bad economic news doesn't always precede stock market declines. In fact, according to the Wall Street Journal, the market performed better during the recessions of 1980, 1981-1982, 1990-1991, and 2001 than it did in the six months leading up to them. And in the first three of those examples, stocks actually gained ground during the recession.

No comments: