By Doug French, Contributing Editor
Predicting the future, like getting old, ain’t for sissies. Questioning the bull market is even more treacherous.
Howard Gold, writing for MarketWatch, makes fun of seers who made what he calls “the four worst predictions to gain traction over the past few years.”
Gold says the last six years have been a disaster for those who stayed out of the stock market. He claims there’s a bull market in doom and gloom, referring to a column by his colleague Chuck Jaffe, who points out, “The fortune-tellers … know that the more outrageous the prediction, the more attention they get. They can highlight any forecasts they get right, knowing that their misfires are forgotten quickly. Thus, calamity and catastrophe sells. Right now, it’s a bull market for bearish forecasts.”
If such a bull market in doom were really happening, the market wouldn’t be hitting all-time highs. Besides, no one ever went broke being out of the market.
But more importantly, there is a very good reason people respond to gloomy forecasts. Behavioral economics pioneer and 2002 Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman explains in his bestseller Thinking, Fast and Slow that when people compare losses and gains, they weigh losses more heavily. There’s an evolutionary reason for this: “Organisms that treat threats as more urgent than opportunities have a better chance to survive and reproduce,” Kahneman explains.
Most people, when given the opportunity to win $150 or lose $100 on a coin flip, decline the bet because the fear of losing $100 is more intense than the hope of gaining $150. Kahneman writes that the typical loss aversion ratio seen in most experiments is 1.5 to 2.5. Professional stock traders have much higher tolerance for risk, but most people investing their retirement accounts are not pros and have little fortitude for losses.
The average Joe can’t just sit tight while his retirement account drops 40%. He’s not wired that way. His retirement savings represent safety, and a market crash is the modern equivalent of a flood, a bear, or a warring tribe. When stocks start falling, survival mode kicks in. He or she sells and runs for cover.
So when someone makes a compelling case that stocks might crash, the average person rightly listens. Otherwise they don’t get any sleep.
Economist and financial newsletter writer Harry Dent predicted the DJIA would crash to 3,000 and told investors to bail out between early 2012 and late 2013. Some people likely took him up on it. In July 2010, Robert Prechter of Elliott Wave fame predicted the DJIA would fall to well below 1,000 over the ensuing five or six years.
“I’m saying: ‘Winter is coming. Buy a coat,’” Prechter told the New York Times. “Other people are advising people to stay naked. If I’m wrong, you’re not hurt. If they’re wrong, you’re dead. It’s pretty benign advice to opt for safety for a while.”
While Prechter sees massive deflation on the horizon, Marc Faber, editor of the Gloom, Boom & Doom Report, says Zimbabwe-style hyperinflation is on the way. Gold calls this “the single worst prediction of the past five years.” Gold calls Faber wacky for telling Bloomberg in 2009:
I am 100% sure that the U.S. will go into hyperinflation. Not tomorrow, but the problem with the government debt growing so much is that when the time will come and the Fed should increase interest rates, they’ll be very reluctant to do so and so inflation will start to accelerate.
Peter Schiff’s call for $5,000/oz gold also has Mr. Gold laughing. Schiff sees the Fed printing more to stimulate the economy, which will send the yellow metal soaring.
“Back in the real world,” sneers Gold, “new Fed Chairwoman Janet Yellen is actually winding down the Fed’s extra bond buying (quantitative easing, or QE), and she’s on pace to finish by fall.”
Europe’s economic problems had establishment news outlets like The Economist saying in November 2011, the euro “could break up within weeks.” President Obama’s former chief economist, Austan Goolsbee, said “there probably isn’t” any way to hold the eurozone together.
And the ultimate establishment voice, Alan Greenspan, told CNBC the divergent cultures using one currency “simply can’t continue to work.”
So it’s not just wackadoodles wearing tinfoil hats missing the mark, as Mr. Gold implies. He writes, “But too many people have lost precious time and a chance to make real money by listening to these fear mongers. They’re probably kicking themselves now, or should be.”
However, nearly all of the gloomy prognostications Gold makes fun of are in response to the actions of central bankers, who have been at least as wrong as anyone else in their predictions.
Big financial-services companies should be kicking themselves for paying Greenspan $100,000 a speech these days. The Maestro reportedly hauled in an $8.5 million advance for his book, The Age of Turbulence. That’s a lot to pay for someone who whiffed on the housing bubble. In 2002, Greenspan said, “Even if a bubble were to develop in a local market, it would not necessarily have implications for the nation as a whole.”
Ben Bernanke, who used to make $200,000 a year, now makes “that in just a few hours speaking to bankers, hedge fund billionaires and leaders of industry,” the New York Times reports. “This year alone, he is poised to make millions of dollars from speaking engagements.”
He hasn’t exactly been an accurate predictor either. In 2005, Ben Bernanke was asked if the housing market was overheated. “Well, I guess I don’t buy your premise,” he replied. “It’s a pretty unlikely possibility. We’ve never had a decline in house prices on a nationwide basis.”
Even former Treasury Secretary and ex-New York Fed President Tim Geithner is getting in on the action, receiving $100,000 to $200,000 per talk. Plus he likely received a large advance for his book Stress Test.
Geithner admits he didn’t see the financial crisis coming. In his review of Geithner’s book, Flash Boys author Michael Lewis writes, “The story Geithner goes on to tell blames everyone and no one. The crisis he describes might just as well have been an act of God.”
They Warn for a Reason
Mr. Gold believes that economic catastrophes have natural causes. “Bad things happen in life,” he writes. “Hurricanes and tornadoes destroy communities. Nuclear war and climate change are big long-term dangers. And there will be bear markets and deep recessions in the years ahead.”
Inflation to any degree is not an act of God. Neither are currency nor stock market crashes. Central bankers create these calamities and then ride off into the sunset, earning six-figure speaking fees and multimillion-dollar book deals. The positive reinforcement they receive ensures they’ll repeat the same mistakes over and over again.
Thus, warnings must be issued constantly. Bad things are going to happen to the finances of individuals who aren’t prepared.
It’s not a matter of if, but when. Better scared than sorry.
(Editor’s Note: How quickly a crisis can creep up on you is demonstrated in our Casey Research documentary, Meltdown America. If you haven’t watched it yet, you should. Click here to watch this free video.)