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Fortune tellers

The investment world has its share of prophets of doom, gloom -- and future booms

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If you're reading this article today, the chances are the world isn't coming to an end, post-haste.

To perhaps a handful of individuals far out on the fringe, yesterday -- Dec. 21, 2012 -- was supposed to be the end of the world, according to the ancient Mayans' calendar.

While credible scholars of the extinct Central American civilization agree the Mayans' understanding of time and its relationship to astronomy were amazingly advanced, these experts have always argued the end of the 5,000-year-plus era on the Mayan calendar is just a date -- and not much more.

And it's only through our pop culture, Internet-rumour-mill society that the end-of-the-world concept became a mainstream idea.

The world of investing is certainly no stranger to prophetic forecasts of doom -- and fortune -- either.

Arguably, the very foundation of investment involves making predictions that, despite all the technical jargon and mathematical acrobatics, are really nothing more than half-blind swings at profiting from uncertain market movements.

And many calls on the market have indeed been "out there" from the get-go, and even more so in retrospect, says economist Mike Moffatt, an assistant professor at the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario.

"The most famous of which may be Irving Fisher in 1929, when he said the stock market had reached a permanent plateau," he says. "That was a couple of weeks before the big stock market crash."

More recently, James Glassman and Kevin Hassett, while both were working at the American Enterprise Institute, co-authored Dow 36,000: The New Strategy for Profiting from the Coming Rise in the Stock Market in 1999 just before the tech bubble.

Given its title, the fallacy of their prediction is obvious -- now.

"The book was published just after an amazingly long period of higher-than-normal market returns, combined with much lower-than-average volatility," says Alan Fustey, a financial analyst and money manager at Index Wealth Management in Winnipeg.

"But the Dow reached an all-time high of 14,164 on Oct. 9, 2007, and now currently sits at around the 13,100 level 13 years later. So much for that call."

Yet for every prediction that hasn't come true, some economists, money managers and market analysts have made accurate forecasts on markets.

Former Clinton White House economic adviser Nouriel Roubini predicted the 2008 Great Recession. Two years before the meltdown, the economist forecast the U.S. would face an unprecedented housing crash, an oil-price shock and plummeting confidence in the financial system that would lead to a deep recession.

Roubini certainly wasn't the only one who foresaw big problems brewing in the global economy at the time.

As Michael Lewis wrote in his book on the meltdown, The Big Short, many market-watchers had been predicting a collapse of the housing market and even the banking system.

But Lewis's book also points out many had to wait years for their call to eventually come to fruition. All the while, their doubters derided them and their anxious financial backers demanded their money back.

Moffatt says making an assessment on where the market is eventually heading is one thing, but timing that call is another. In many instances, luck plays as large a role in making the correct call as skill.

"What happens a lot of times is you will have someone completely come out of nowhere, like Peter Schiff, who makes a correct call," Moffatt says about the American investment broker who predicted the crash.

"Schiff made a correct call on the housing bubble and got media coverage, and then, like others who did the same, he is perceived as having some kind of unknown forecasting ability that no one else has. But the reality is their performance really depended on luck and is no indication on how they will perform in the future."

In Schiff's case, he predicted after the crash that inflation would reach double digits in the U.S. by 2010, which obviously hasn't worked out.

Even when it comes to the most successful forecasters, Moffatt says the investment community has a tendency to view them through a lens of mysticism. Warren Buffett, for instance, is nicknamed the Oracle of Omaha.

"At least in Buffett's case, he's made so many right calls, you can understand the nickname," Moffatt says. "Where I get leery is when someone makes one right big call and then is considered an oracle for the next 20 years."

The trouble with market predictions, he adds, is even the best forecasters are frequently wrong.

"Economics, especially, is not the field to be in if you're afraid of being wrong," he says. "It's just inherent that so much of it is unpredictable."

Still, we expect the predictions. The media frequently report bank economists' forecasts on GDP growth. Investment-news junkies scour the web for articles from experts on the next big investment. Even the whole concept of buy low and sell high inherently involves a prediction on future growth that is by no means guaranteed.

It's a tough gig, but somebody's got to do it, and if they can do it reasonably well enough, they can make a living.

"It's also the case that if you're right 53 per cent of the time, you're probably going to make a very good living out of it," Moffatt says.

"But to expect someone to be right 80 to 90 per cent of the time is unrealistic."

Quick facts

Fool's gold and the unpredictable nature of commodities: Making calls on the price of oil, gold and other commodities can be a good way to make a lot of money, but most people are just as likely to lose their Brooks Brothers shirts.

Economist Mike Moffatt says making predictions about commodity prices will assure most people of one thing sooner or later: looking like a fool.

"With oil, in particular, if you want to be made to look foolish, make a 10-year oil-price prediction, because it always seems to go in directions that nobody expects." Many, for instance, predicted in the late '70s and '80s that oil would continue its rise. Then oil prices stabilized and even decreased over the next 20 years.

Gold is equally hard to call. Gold was considered a dead asset by many, having fallen from an all-time high in 1980 of $615 an ounce to about $271 an ounce in 2001. Then it started to rise with a booming global economy, coupled with fears of inflation and an economic meltdown.

"I remember teaching a class of MBAs in 2005 and gold had risen quite a bit, and I had a conversation with someone when it was about $700 an ounce where I said, 'I don't know if these gold prices are sustainable with how much they've gone up lately,' and now it's worth at least double that."

Dart-throwing monkeys do it better? Nearly 40 years ago, economist Burton Malkiel penned A Random Walk Down Wall Street, positing the idea the markets are so entirely random that it's impossible for a money manager to consistently outperform the market.

He playfully asserted that a blindfolded monkey throwing darts at the financial pages could select an investment portfolio that would perform equally as well as investments selected by experts.

In the 1980s, the Wall Street Journal took his assertion to task. They didn't use monkeys. Instead, staffers threw darts at a stock table to choose their investment against the expert picks of money managers. It was a long-running feature in the newspaper, and over 142 six-month-long measurement periods, the experts came out ahead with an average gain of 10.2 per cent whereas the darts averaged 3.5 per cent and the Dow Jones Industrial Index averaged 5.6 per cent increases over those periods.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 22, 2012 B10

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