The Wall Street Myth That Could Destroy Your Portfolio

It is a pervasive myth that has left the savings of countless small investors in ruins. More likely than not, it is a piece of information you've relied on while making investment decisions. Maybe you told yourself it was too good to be true, but deep down you wanted it to be true, and so you believed it.

A myth debunked
Fool dividend gurus Andy Cross and James Early tipped me off to a recent eye-opening study by Patrick Cusatis and J. Randall Woolridge of Pennsylvania State University. Cusatis and Woolridge studied 20 years' worth of published earnings estimates made by Wall Street industry analysts. What they found was startling.

Cusatis and Woolridge found that Wall Street analysts -- supposedly among the smartest, most well-informed prognosticators -- consistently overestimated the future earnings growth rates of the companies they cover. By a lot. I mean by a whole lot.

Here is a table showing the researchers' findings when it comes to the average forecasted annual EPS growth compared to the actual results over the time horizon of the forecast:

Time Frame
of Estimate

Estimated Growth

Actual Growth

Overestimated by

1 Year

13.8%

9.8%

4%

5 Years

14.9%

9.1%

5.8%

Source: "The Accuracy of Analysts' Long-Term Earnings-Per-Share Growth Rate Forecasts," Cusatis and Woolridge.

That's a tiny table with huge implications.

Why you should be concerned
What you thought you knew about analyst estimates, short- or long-term, is bunk. Over both short runs and long runs, these highly paid analysts are overestimating the earnings growth of the companies they so closely track by a mind-blowing margin.

On the five-year horizon, actual EPS growth clocked in almost 40% below analysts' estimates. Perhaps just as disconcerting, Cusatis and Woolridge point out that the average five-year estimates were roughly double the rate of GDP growth over the same time period. So much for efficient markets.

Now, while the cause of this mind-boggling inaccuracy is debatable, the consequence of it for individual investors is straightforward. Namely, that you can only take analysts' forecasts with a grain of salt at best, and, practically speaking, you should ratchet them down to the tune of around 40%.

Ouch
For perspective, here is a list of stocks that analysts expect to grow at a rapid rate over the next five years versus what might be a more realistic growth rate based on Cusatis and Woolridge's analysis:

Company

Analysts' 5-Year
EPS Growth Estimates

Adjusted 5-Year
EPS Growth Estimates

Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  )

28.4%

17.3%

Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL  )

23%

14.1%

Evergreen Solar (Nasdaq: ESLR  )

35%

21.4%

Monsanto (NYSE: MON  )

36.9%

22.5%

Research In Motion (Nasdaq: RIMM  )

33.9%

20.7%

First Solar (Nasdaq: FSLR  )

45.3%

27.7%

China Mobile (NYSE: CHL  )

24.6%

15%

Bit of an eye-opener, right? Those are some serious haircuts. Perhaps you're thinking, "So what if First Solar doesn't deliver 50% annual growth over the next five years? I'd be plenty happy with the 28% 'adjusted' scenario." That line of thinking, friends, is how you get burned.

Put simply, stocks that don't live up to heady expectations go down. Hard. Ask a disgruntled investor in Crocs or NutriSystem what happens when a stock with huge growth expectations fails to live up to the hype.

Your next steps
These new findings demonstrate clearly that you must change the way you look at investing, particularly in growth stocks.

For starters, stop lusting after the next rocket stock, or whatever you want to call it. Growth isn't inherently a bad thing, but if this study has shown us anything it is that the ability to forecast growth accurately over the short run or long run, even when attempted by savvy experts, is akin to long-distance dart throwing. Are you an investor or a dart-thrower?

Don't overcomplicate things
Empirical research has shown that market-beating performance is as easy as investing in low-growth, dividend-paying stocks, with the added benefit of lower volatility. Personally, I'll take low-volatility, market-beating returns over the stress of finding the next home run stock any day.

Andy Cross and James Early, the two dividend gurus I mentioned earlier who tipped me off to this tale of Wall Street folly, execute just such a strategy with their Income Investor newsletter service. Try the service free for 30 days to see if their low-volatility, high-returns approach is right for you.

And in the meantime, don't trust analysts' estimates. No, really.

Joe Magyer does not own shares of any companies mentioned in this article. Not exactly surprising, right? Apple is a Stock Advisor recommendation. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


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Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On May 09, 2009, at 11:56 AM, WeGetFooledAgain wrote:

    Finally someone is analyzing the analysts! I've long waited to find out how they rate such attention when they're so often wrong. Not just the long distance dart tosses at earnings but even the more simplified Buy-Hold-Sell ratings are questionable. Only by ranking each analyst or rating service for accuracy will they be held accountable for their estimates.

    Is there anyplace we can go to see a ranking of which rating service is most often correct? How about rating the analysts?

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