The Wall Street Myth That Could Destroy Your Portfolio

Among the many recently uncovered Wall Street myths, there's a quietly persistent one that has left the savings of countless small investors in ruins. More likely than not, you've relied on this piece of information while making your own investment decisions. Maybe you told yourself it was too good to be true, but deep down, you wanted it to be true. So you believed it.

A myth debunked
Fool dividend gurus James Early and Andy Cross 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 from Wall Street industry analysts ... and reached a startling conclusion.

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 covered. By a lot. I mean, by a whole lot.

The researchers compared average forecasted annual EPS growth against the actual results over the time horizon of the forecast. Here's what they found:

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, you can only take analysts' forecasts with a grain of salt at best. 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  )

20.8%

12.7%

Apple

20.4%

12.5%

Evergreen Solar (Nasdaq: ESLR  )

31.7%

19.3%

Monsanto (NYSE: MON  )

26.7%

16.3%

Research In Motion (Nasdaq: RIMM  )

36.1%

22%

First Solar (Nasdaq: FSLR  )

47.3%

28.9%

ChinaMobile (NYSE: CHL  )

22.5%

13.7%

Data from Yahoo! Finance.

Bit of an eye-opener, right? Those are some serious haircuts. Perhaps you're thinking, "So what if First Solar doesn't deliver near 50% annual growth over the next five years? I'd be plenty happy with the 29% 'adjusted' scenario." That line of thinking, friends, is how you get burned.

See, the value of most stocks is simply a reflection of current expectations of future growth and profits. If a company misses earnings estimates or (worse) lowers its outlook, its shares usually fall. Hard. If you need any convincing, just ask a Crocs investor 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, of course. But if this study has shown us anything, it's 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 market-beating Income Investor newsletter service. Try the service free for 30 days to see whether their cash-focused approach is right for you.

This article was originally published on May 1, 2008. It has been updated.

Joe Magyer does not own shares of any companies mentioned in this article. Google is a
Motley Fool Rule Breakers recommendation, while Apple is a Stock Advisor recommendation. Crocs is a former Motley Fool Hidden Gems Pay Dirt recommendation. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


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  • Report this Comment On November 26, 2008, at 12:49 PM, dmprofit wrote:

    I went ahead and read the article and I think the results are skewed from previous history.

    The authors go back all the way to 1984.

    I go back just for the past 5 years (2002-2006) for the 1 year estimates/actuals and do the same calculation:

    The numbers tell a different story:

    Actual: 13.32

    Estimates: 12.97

    So this tells me that the analysts estimates these days are pretty darn good.

    The problem with using long term historical results is that they may skew the overall results.

    I am not saying that all analysts estimates are all dead nuts on but they appear to be much better these days than what you are saying.

  • Report this Comment On November 26, 2008, at 4:14 PM, TMFJoeInvestor wrote:

    Hey dmprofit. I'm not quite sure what your source is on that, but from what I read in their robust research was that analysts haven't gotten any more accurate over time. I'm working remote right now and don't have a full copy of the study at my fingertips, but here's an intro letter to the study: http://www.smeal.psu.edu/news/latest-news/mar08/analysts.htm...

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