The Exciting New Field of Recession Prognostication

PsychicI wish to inform you about an exciting new profession, currently accepting applicants. Accurate recession prognostication and divination is an up and coming new business that is surging in these turbulent economic times! And now is your chance to get in on the ground floor of this amazing opportunity!

I am of course being facetious, but my satire is not without precedent. As 2018 has devolved into global market chaos, finally losing the US markets in October, experts have been marshalled to tell investors why they are wrong about markets and why they should be more bullish.

Specifically analysts and various other media friendly talking heads have been trying to convey to the general public that the negative market sentiment that has driven returns down is misplaced, and have pointed to various computer screens and certain charts as proof that the economy is quite healthy and that in this moment we are not facing an imminent recession. Market returns through the final quarter of 2018 indicate this message has yet to find fertile ground among the wider public.

Dow Jones Dec 31
The Dow Jones has had a wild ride this year, with significant declines in February, October and finally in December when the markets ended the year lower than they began.

While these experts, analysts and financial reporter types may not be wrong, indeed the data they point to has some real merit, I don’t think that investors are wrong to heavily discount their advice. For the wider investing audience, being right 100% of the time is not a useful benchmark to strive towards with investments ear-marked for retirement. Instead a smarter approach is to be mindful about risks that can be ill-afforded. Investment specific risk, like that of an individual stock may be up to an investor (how much do I wish to potentially lose?). On the other hand, a global recession that is indiscriminate in the assets that suffer may be more risk than an investor can stomach.

TSX Dec 31
The S&P TSX has had another dismal year, and is currently lower than it was in 2007, marking a lost decade. Making money in the Canadian markets has been a trading game, not a buy and hold strategy.

The experts have therefore made two critical errors. The first is assuming that what is undermining investor confidence is an insufficient understanding of economic data. The second is that there is a history, any history, of market analysts, economists and journalists making accurate predictions of recessions before they happen.

This last point is of particular importance. While I began this article with some weak humor on prognostication and divination, it’s worth noting that predicting recessions has a failure rate slightly higher than your local psychic and lottery numbers. That so many people can be brought forth on such short notice to offer confident predictions about the state of world with no shame is possibly the worst element of modern investment culture that has not been reformed by the events of 2008.

2008 Predictions vs reality
These are the economist predictions for economic growth at both the start of Q3 and Q4 in 2008. Even as the collapse got worse, economists were not gifted with any extra insight. 

This doesn’t mean that investors should automatically flee the market, listen to their first doubt or react to their gut instincts. Instead this is a reminder that for the media to be useful it must think about what investors need (guidance and smart advice) and not more promotion of headline grabbing prognostication. The markets ARE down, and this reflects many realities, including economic concerns, geopolitical concerns and a host of other factors outside of an individual’s control. It is not a question of whether markets are right or wrong in this assessment, but whether good paths remain open to those depending on market returns.

In Praise of Investor Optimism

markets_1980043c

My industry is awash in optimism. This makes intuitive sense, for the entire process of investing assumes that the companies you invest in will go up in value. Regardless of how conservative and cautious a portfolio manager is, underlying his dour outlook is an optimist that runs a portfolio of various stocks, each one intended to make money.

optimism

For this reason it is incredibly rare to hear outright negativity from professionals, which I suspect contributes to a subtle sense of unease by the average Canadian who must both trust a portfolio manager to look after his money while scratching their heads at a market that can decline significantly in value with no perceivable change to the asset mix they are invested it.

This is Bill Gross. Until 2011 he was a very successful manager with PIMCO, where he headed up their largest fund. Then he made a contrarian prediction about the markets, lost a lot of money and was fired from his fund.
This is Bill Gross. Until 2011 he was a very successful manager with PIMCO, where he headed up their largest fund. Then he made a contrarian prediction about the markets, lost a lot of money and was fired from his fund.

Even when we do get very negative views from portfolio managers, the subtext is still optimism, just for THEIR investment choices. There is never a contrarian market call that doesn’t seem to serve double duty as a marketing plan as well. When Bill Gross famously said that the US was going to tank back in 2011, he was also claiming that his investments wouldn’t and took a contrarian stance that proved to be very costly for his investors. The same is true for Eric Sprott, whose own doubt about the future of stock markets had prompted some very optimistic numbers about the value of gold and junior mining companies.

For the average investor much of this can be quite exasperating as investing shies away from the ways we attempt to establish certainty. Investing is all about educated guesses, and despite many different tweaks the rules for investing remain surprisingly limited: “buy low, sell high” and “diversify”. Professionals have attempted to improve and refine how these two things are done, seeking out the best ways to analyse companies, markets and whole countries, but in the end these two rules still provide the best advice to investment success.

I wish to write to you about a mistake on your billboard...
I wish to write to you about a mistake on your billboard…

But as investment guides go, reveling in the uncertainty of the investments is something that many people don’t want. Instead they would much prefer to hear about what is going to happen in a matter-of-fact manner from an “expert”. This is why there is always a market for doomsayers and contrarian predictions, because of the certainty they seem to offer. It feeds our innate sense that there must be a right and knowable answer about the future that can be revealed to us.

sandwich-board-man-warns-us-of-impending-doomAnd yet like their biblical equivalents, contrarian predictions have all failed to live up to their hype. Just as every “end is nigh” doomsday cult has disappointedly had to move the calendar date for the end of the world, the number of people who have proclaimed loudly the end of traditional investment world is both numerous and filled with failure.

And so, frustratingly, investors are faced with the assuredness of doom-saying predictioners (who are almost certainty wrong), and the cheerfully faced optimistic portfolio managers who routinely remind investors that there is no bad time to invest, that bad markets are “corrections” or “set backs” and that significant price drops are “buying opportunities”.

And yet I doubt we would have it any other way. If we could be absolutely certain about what stocks were going up or down and when there would be no money to make in the markets as companies would always be priced correctly. And whether we realize it or not, it is hugely helpful to remember that there exists no accurate way to divine the future, no Ouija board that can contact the dead, no equation or computer that can process the world’s data to tell us what is happening tomorrow, next week or a decade from now.

I derive great comfort in this, because the optimism that drives the investing world is also a wider optimism about the future. Experts predicted famines wiping out millions in 1970s and 1980s, environmentalists predict the end of all things, and political talking heads bombard us with a daily diet that everything is awful, but our world is healthier, wealthier and kinder than ever before. And unbelievably investors believe in that world, even when they don’t know it.