Sometimes an answer is easier to see if one steps away from the immediate problem, instead looking at an analogous situation. This is a common teaching method, and one that we use frequently at "A Dash."
Getting away from the immediate question helps to avoid what behavioral psychologists call the confirmation bias. This tendency to see evidence as supporting one's preconceptions is very powerful. We believe that even the leading market pundits, who are well aware of the phenomenon, fall victim to its power.
There is another important advantage: Clarifying our objective. So many prominent market commentaries claim not to make specific forecasts. Frequently the authors criticize those who make specific and quantifiable predictions, pouncing on their errors.
We find this position quite remarkable. If a market pundit is not trying to make some prediction, what is the value to readers? Those claiming to have a "variant view" are making predictions. The "variant view" idea involves even more complex predictions. The author must make his own prediction, and then also prove that the market has not already discounted his widely-publicized idea.
The critical reader should ask whether these predictions are specific, quantifiable, and falsifiable. If not, the argument is not useful for trading.
Bill Rempel's strongly-stated article on this subject deserves a wide readership:
There are some who would have it both ways. These people actively manage money! Perhaps for client accounts, where they buy or sell based on their technical models. Perhaps in mutual funds, where they decide whether to hedge with index puts, and how much hedging to put on. However, they try to have it both ways by saying “it’s not a prediction” or authoring articles about the fallacies of making predictions.
Please read Bill's entire analysis. As we attempt to guide readers to the best sources on the Internet -- especially informing the explosion of new readers who have not joined us yet -- Bill's criteria should have a prominent place.
A Test of Confirmation Bias
Let us pretend that we live in Chicago -- something that means living and dying with "Da Bears." [Giant fans and others can substitute their own team.] We are interested in whether the Bears will win each game, each week. We have many sources of information about Bears players, injuries, strategies, coaching, and most importantly, whether "good Rex" or "bad Rex" will be at the helm this week. There are also many predictions from a community of experts. Since we are fans, we have a lot of information and plenty of opinions.
This information can be our undoing. We think that we know more and can parse information better than the real experts. Everything that we see on TV, hear on talk radio, or read in the paper feeds our confirmation bias. This is reflected not just in our interpretation of what we read, but also in what we choose to read.
Now let us suppose that we wished to predict the weekly result of the Phoenix Cardinals, a team in which we have little interest. Our search for information would be much more objective, including a more open mind about expert predictions, sources, and data.
The Market Application
Let us imagine that a group of potential investors, abandoning the business of condo-flipping, decided to look at stocks with a long-term view. These investors did not have any preconceived notions. They had no market theory. Their only question was whether to invest in stocks, and whether this was the right time.
In doing their research, they discovered that there was a community of experts. These commentators had no allegiance to a particular viewpoint. Their earnings were strictly based upon their results. Poor performance, poor revenue.
The group of new investors might discover Mark Hulbert, who monitors the long-term performance of market advisory letters. He identified the best and worst performers over the last ten years. These groups of experts, unlike bloggers or pundits, cannot "fake it." Revenues flow from performance.
The rookie investors discover the following from Hulbert (Barron's subscription required) -- a truly remarkable result:
The bottom line? None of these nine top timers are bearish. The average equity allocation among all nine is 92%. This is higher than where this average stood a year ago, as well as where it was in early May.
This 92% average is good news for the stock market in its own right, of course. But it's particularly bullish relative to the average forecast of the 10 stock-market timing newsletters with the very worst risk-adjusted performances over the last decade. The average recommended equity exposure among these worst performers right now is 0%.
In other words, the worst market timers are quite bearish right now, while the best timers are quite bullish. Rarely are we presented with a contrast this stark.
There are no guarantees. But to bet on a new bear market right now, you have to bet against the timers with the best long-term records and with those whose records have been awful.
There are many issues surrounding the prospects for stocks. One needs to understand the worries, the probabilities, and how much current prices already reflect these concerns.
The intelligent investor reads a lot of information and has opinions on everything. It is an easy question:
Do you think you are smarter and better informed than the consensus of all of the investment newsletter writers?
Or might you be falling victim to the confirmation bias, spending a little too much time at your favorite bearish blog?