What Alan Greenspan Gets Wrong About Risk

Economist Kenneth Arrow was a statistician during World War II. One of his jobs was analyzing weather forecasts made months into the future. The forecasts, he found, were pretty much useless. When he warned his commanders against taking them too seriously, he received a legendary response: "The Commanding General is well aware the forecast are no good. However, he needs them for planning purposes."

I remembered this story this week when reading former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan's latest book, The Map and the Territory. Greenspan writes about the failures of forecasts, especially those made right before the 2008 financial crisis. But then he offers a defense (emphasis mine):

Forecasting, irrespective of its failures, will never be abandoned. It is an inbred necessity of human nature. The more we can anticipate the course of events in the world in which we live, the better prepared we are to react to those events in a matter than can improve our lives.

The former chairman is well aware the forecasts are no good. However, he needs them for planning purposes.

I think Greenspan gets this exactly backwards, especially in the world of finance. Financial lives are ruined when people take too much risk. And one reason people take too much risk is because they believe in their delusional forecasts, and aren't prepared to react to events. I've become almost fatalistic on this, and think most people can improve their financial lives by distancing themselves from as many forecasts as possible.

Sure, we'd do better if we could anticipate the paths our lives go down. But we can't. You would not wish upon your worst enemy the track record of professional economists predicting the financial events that really mattered throughout history. Maybe we've gotten better at predicting the next jobs report, or anticipating a company's earnings, although I'm not even sure that's the case. But think about the most important events of the last century -- those that really changed the course of history. World War 1. The flu pandemic. Banking runs during the Great Depression. World War II. The baby boom. The Cold War. Oil embargoes. The end of the Cold War. 9/11. Lehman Brothers going bankrupt. It was impossible to forecast these events, because all of them relied on "trivia and accident," as Dan Gardner put it in his book Future Babble. Put all of the world's PhDs in a room in 2007, and they couldn't have forecast that former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson would let Lehman go bankrupt in 2008, because Paulson recounts that the decision was largely made in late-night meetings hours before the collapse. In a world where the most important events can't be predicted, the more we fool ourselves into thinking that we can forecast, the more risk we expose ourselves to. 

In my experience, the people who are the most successful in finance -- whether it's a professional investor or a passive retiree -- are not those who make the best forecasts. It's those who put themselves in situations where they don't need to rely on forecasts coming true in order to do OK. Sure, you've heard stories about investors who make a big, gutsy call and make a fortune. But those stories often rely overwhelmingly on luck and revert to the mean very quickly. Lasting financial success comes to those who align the odds of success in their favor. That comes from being adaptable and open to change, which is literally the opposite of relying on forecasts.

I think everyone's financial plan should follow a few golden rules:

  • Your portfolio should not rely on recessions not occurring.
  • Your portfolio should not rely on a recession occurring.
  • Your portfolio should not rely on a crash occurring anytime soon.
  • Your portfolio should not rely on a crash not occurring anytime soon.
  • You should not rely on stocks going up 10% a year for the next 50 years.
  • Your expenses for the next six months (at least) should not rely on remaining employed.
  • You should not rely on Social Security paying out as much as it does today.
  • You should not rely on inflation remaining low.
  • You should not assume the Fed printing money means hyperinflation is imminent.
  • You should not rely on making as much money for the rest of your career as you do today.
  • You should not rely on one person's opinion.
  • You should rely on being wrong, and the future's biggest news stories being stuff no one is talking about today.

This doesn't mean you're not taking risk. It just means that you can handle things that don't go according to plan. Logically, you'll never be able to do that completely. But everyone can improve their financial lives by trying to lengthen the distance between your forecast coming true and needing your forecasts to come true.

Greenspan is right that forecasting is human nature. It'll never go away. But the more we convince ourselves that we're able to forecast with precision, the riskier the world becomes. I'm advocating humility, which seems reasonable after thousands of forecasters -- Greenspan included -- were humbled.

Check back every Tuesday and Friday for Morgan Housel's columns on finance and economics. 

No Pitch


Read/Post Comments (15) | Recommend This Article (36)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

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 January 17, 2014, at 4:28 PM, adlerc wrote:

    Good article. However, you are still talking about forecasts in your financial planning. They are just longer term forecasts (e.g., this is a good company with good management that will increase in value over the long term is a forecast). To use your weather analogy imperfectly, I may not be able to predict the weather precisely in two months, but I sure can predict that here in the US the temperature will be colder in January than in July. Both are forecasts, one is just not subject to the random day-to-day "trivia and accidents."

  • Report this Comment On January 17, 2014, at 7:21 PM, MartyTheCanuck wrote:

    alderc

    Yes you're still making forecasts when investing for the long-term in individual businesses. But you allow for being wrong in some of them by diversification, in 10 or 20 companies. So even if you're wrong on some of them ( and you'll be ), you can succeed if you're right on most.

    Not allowing for being wrong, you could invest all your saving in only 5 companies, or 3, or why not only 1, your very best investing idea ?

  • Report this Comment On January 17, 2014, at 11:20 PM, SkepikI wrote:

    <Not allowing for being wrong, you could invest all your saving in only 5 companies, or 3, or why not only 1, your very best investing idea ?>

    Ahh Marty, irresistible.... Because of course, while he might not be wrong, ALL THOSE OTHER idiot investors might be wrong and screw it all up for the correct! ;-)

  • Report this Comment On January 18, 2014, at 10:52 AM, EricHawman wrote:

    You should not rely on this, that, or the other thing.

    Just keep it simple: You should not rely on being alive tomorrow. Or being dead.

    So what kind of plan does that suggest?

  • Report this Comment On January 18, 2014, at 9:29 PM, boogerface02211 wrote:

    You get it, dude. Fool on.

  • Report this Comment On January 20, 2014, at 12:31 AM, chairmanwow wrote:

    Judging by the info in Morgan's profile, it looks as though he's forecasting that the following basket of ticker symbols (stocks and funds) will be worth more when he needs the money in the future than they are worth today:

    BRK, MKL, MO, PM, PG, VZ, T, VT, VIG, VTI, VYM, VOO, XOM, CVX, ED, SO

    I wonder how he arrived at this conclusion. Did he throw darts and randomly hit these tickers? Or did he fall prey to the same sin he accuses others of committing? Unfortunately, the column (which I enjoyed as far as it went) is limited to pointing out the flaws in forecasting rather than giving any helpful ideas for how to succeed without forecasts.

    For what it's worth, his collection of utilities, consumer staples, major oil companies, and telecoms overlaps significantly with mine.

  • Report this Comment On January 20, 2014, at 7:57 AM, TMFHousel wrote:

    charimanwow,

    Thanks for the comments. Of course I own stocks. But if any one of those positions fell to zero tomorrow, my standard of living would not change. If the whole market fell 50%, my standard of living would not change. Forecasting is dangerous when you need to rely on your forecasts coming correct. That's very different than being a general optimist on humans and the economy over the next several decades.

    -Morgan

  • Report this Comment On January 20, 2014, at 5:27 PM, xetn wrote:

    This from a guy that couldn't (or claimed) there was no tech bubble in the 90's or a bubble forming in the credit markets for real estate, etc.

    Some forecaster.

    He also believes (as Bernanke and Yellen) that you can grow an economy by printing trillions of new dollars and huge amounts of debt.

  • Report this Comment On January 20, 2014, at 6:43 PM, cmalek wrote:

    "if any one of those positions fell to zero tomorrow, my standard of living would not change."

    That can only happen if you live in a cardboard box over a steam vent, or on a deserted island and are fully self-sufficient. Because ANY AND ALL of your investments (cash, stocks, bonds, gold, real estate, etc.) can lose their value.

    "Forecasting is dangerous when you need to rely on your forecasts coming correct.

    But we HAVE to forecast, otherwise we'd be living minute to minute, day to day. Any budget is a forecast. Any kind of retirement planning is forecasting. Pick the wrong retirement vehicle and POOF! your retirement is gone. Try as we might, we cannot account for serendipity and Mr. Murphy. On the other hand, not forecasting is just as dangerous.

  • Report this Comment On January 20, 2014, at 7:40 PM, wildeweasel wrote:

    You guys are being pretty hard on the guy. I completely agree with him, forecast, earning estimates, bubble warnings, etc. are all drivel and tripe to fill up hours of investing infotainment on television and print. I invest in good ideas, growing companies and solid numbers. So far I have hit over 85%, funny enough though I am yet to buy a pick based on MF recommendation.

  • Report this Comment On January 20, 2014, at 9:07 PM, lowmaple wrote:

    Well l've planned on possibly being dead tomorrow since if l[m wrong it's kinda hard to fix

  • Report this Comment On January 21, 2014, at 4:31 AM, nivekluap wrote:

    Great article, Morgan. My take on this is....don't measure with a micrometer what you will cut with an axe.

    KD

  • Report this Comment On January 21, 2014, at 3:35 PM, 48ozhalfgallons wrote:

    Making accurate predictions is very difficult especially when they concern the future.

  • Report this Comment On January 21, 2014, at 5:51 PM, chairmanwow wrote:

    Mr. Housel,

    Thanks for the response. I share your general optimism for the future and I translate that optimism into a prediction/belief/forecast (whatever you want to call it) that companies like PG, PM, and KO will continue to pay growing dividends for many decades to come -- dividends that ought to at least maintain my standard of living in retirement even if, as you said, the prices of those stocks fall 50%. I hope if that happens I'm brave enough (and have some idle cash lying around) to buy more shares at bargain prices--assuming of course that nothing has happened to the underlying businesses that causes me to change my belief in their future dividend-paying capacities.

    Best,

    chairmanwow

  • Report this Comment On January 22, 2014, at 2:12 AM, dorkmeyer wrote:

    "The Commanding General is well aware the forecast are [sic] no good. However, he needs them for planning purposes."

    This quote lends credence to one of the first lessons that my drill sergeant barked: "There's the right way, there's the wrong way, and there's the Army way." (Incidentally, that was a forecast that repeatedly proved true for as long as I served---and maybe thereafter, although I can't personally vouch for that.)

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