crystal ball

Ignore the Gurus

Market prognosticators are usually dead wrong. So why do we keep listening?

This is the time of year when the gurus share their predictions and prognostications for the coming year. It is also when the media reports on how poorly the gurus fared in predicting and prognosticating about the events of the past year.

The story is the same every year. As a group, gurus have a miserable track record. It would take you a very long time to read all the books, articles, and academic papers that document just how miserable their predictive powers truly are. No one has ever written a book, article, or paper about how well gurus predict the future. The guru Hall of Fame is an empty room. 

Bloomberg surveyed Wall Street strategists at the end of 2016 and, as a group, they predicted that the S&P 500 index would rise 4.2 percent. It returned over 21.8 percent. According to the Wall Street Journal, in past years the gurus have missed the return of the S&P 500 index half the time by more than 9 percent, which is close to its long-term average return. Gurus predicted gains in the years when the dot.com and real estate bubbles burst. The list of guru failures is endless.

Yet every year another group of gurus steps up to tell us what to expect in the year to come. Why? There are a number of very good reasons. First, humans are wired to make predictions. Jeff Hawkins in his book, On Intelligence, says: “Prediction is not just one of the things your brain does. It is the primary function of the neo-cortex, and the foundation of intelligence.” 

Another reason is that humans abhor uncertainty and crave certainty. Uncertainty generates a strong threat or alert response in our limbic systems. Our own chemistry causes us to feel anxious and distressed in the face of uncertainty. Certainty, on the other hand, feels rewarding. Our brains literally crave information because it reduces the angst caused by uncertainty. 

Professor Shachar Kariv of UC Berkeley has captured this aspect of human behavior in a concept he calls “ambiguity aversion.” His research shows that each of us has a different tolerance for uncertainty and that these differences can be measured. In fact, he and his colleagues have developed a client profiling tool called TrueProfile that measures a client’s ambiguity aversion.

The bottom line is that gurus fill a need. They satisfy their own internal need to predict and they satisfy our internal cravings for the information that slakes our thirst for certainty. Their omnipresence is explained by our own chemistry, not by the usefulness of their predictions.

Knowing this, our response to gurus should be to ignore them. Of course, some of them will occasionally, like dart-throwing monkeys, hit the bulls-eye. But knowing ahead of time which monkey, or which guru, will hit the target is impossible. 

We must overcome the urges driven by our own internal chemistry and learn to live with what, at first, may be an uncomfortable level of uncertainty. Our alternative is to be led astray by the sweet sound of those who promise a clear path forward, but have consistently demonstrated their lack of foresight. We are wired to predict and to crave prediction. Resist!

Scott MacKillop is CEO of First Ascent Asset Management, a Denver-based firm that provides investment management services to financial advisors and their clients. He is a 40-year veteran of the financial services industry. He can be reached at [email protected].

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