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What Wall Street Got Right and Wrong in 2015

By Jordan Wathen and Gaby Lapera - Mar 12, 2016 at 11:23AM

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Financial and economic analysts made some big predictions in 2015, some were slam dunks, others completely missed the mark.

Economic analysts make year-end predictions at the beginning of every New Year. With the benefit of hindsight, we're looking back at a few predictions for 2015, and how accurate these predictions were. From the price of oil to GDP growth, analysts made some very big calls, many of which proved to be wildly inaccurate.

Put simply, forecasting is hard. But some of these predictions were spot on. Join The Motley Fool's Gaby Lapera and Jordan Wathen in praising, and poking fun, at some of the best and worst analyst calls of 2015.

A transcript follows the video.

This podcast was recorded on March 7, 2016. 

Gaby Lapera: I found this article on The Wall Street Journal about how forecasters did over the course of 2015. So, it provided what the average forecaster guessed what would happen for some kind of metric, and then it said what actually happened. And I thought it was kind of funny. So, do you want to talk about that?

Jordan Wathen: Sure. Can we start with the big one? We'll start with the big miss first, because this makes me feel better about how my crazy predictions might not come to pass, and you might actually get a negative interest rate on your bank account. So, crude oil, December 2015, the average economist put it at $63 a barrel, and the actual as of December 29th was about $38 a barrel, which is a critically massive miss. 

Lapera: Yeah, it's so big. (laughs) 

Wathen: Yeah, it doesn't seem big, whatever, $25, I guess.

Lapera: But, people all year -- so, these are guesses people make in January of 2015. So, people all year were saying, "There's no way oil's going to get below $40 a barrel. I can't remember the last time that even happened." And here we are. What is it now? I think I read somewhere that the oil is actually cheaper than the container it is put inside of. The barrel costs more money. (laughs) 

Wathen: Right, the oil barrel costs more than the oil that's in it, yes, that's true.

Lapera: (laughs) That's just crazy. So, this one is fun: the interest rate, since we were just talking about interest rates, the average forecaster said it was going to be at 1.6%, and the actual interest rate on December 16th, 2015, was 0.5%. 

Wathen: Big miss.

Lapera: Yeah, people thought the economy was going to rally more, but we had so much global uncertainty, plus the oil, that it didn't really quite get back up to where they thought it was going to.

Wathen: Right. Predicting interest rates ... talk about something that's just pulling numbers out of a hat. It's not easy to do. And for a long time -- actually, anyone listening should go online and google predictions about where interest rates were going to be since the Great Recession. In every single year, the expectation was that rates would go higher, and then by the end of the year, it was like, "No, we missed, interest rates are staying low forever, apparently." And then, in January, I guess bonus time comes back around, and all the analysts are happy again, so then they predict, yet again, that interest rates will go higher, and they don't. (laughs) Not easy.

Lapera: No, it's definitely ... I don't mean, if you're an analyst out there and you're listening to this and you're like, "These guys should go walk off a short dock," (laughs) we're not making fun of you, we promise. We know it's really, really hard. It's just, it sucks, this is the nature of the job, you're going to be wrong. (laughs) 

Wathen: Right. I mean, I'm sure if a lot of these guys could, they'd just love to write, "You know what? I don't know." And that would be the most honest answer. But that's not what you get paid to do. Your job description isn't, "Hey, just tell us that you don't know because we know you don't," it's, "Hey, give us a best guess. Just guess."

Lapera: Yeah. And if you get it right, I'm sure you must get a bonus, right?

Wathen: Right. If you get it right, you totally nail it, you get to go on CNBC and talk about how great you were, and then the next year you get to be proven wrong again. It's ... (laughs) 

Lapera: Exactly. Well, at least someone will buy you drinks that first time. (laughs) 

Wathen: Right, exactly.

Lapera: Then, the Fed funds rate average forecast was 0.89%, and the actual as of December, 2015 was 0.375%. And the Fed funds rate, for our listeners who don't know, is the rate at which the Fed will give these very short overnight loans to banks.

Wathen: So, this is basically Yellen.

Lapera: Right. And the higher they are, the more expensive it is for banks to borrow money from the central banking agency. However, unemployment they got pretty much on the nose.

Wathen: Right. Unemployment, they almost nailed it. Let's see ... they said average forecast 5.2%, and actual as of November was 5%. I think we're below 5% now.

Lapera: I looked it up, we're barely, barely below 5% for 2016. But in December of 2015, it was 5% exactly.

Wathen: Nailed it.

Lapera: Good job, guys. Whoever picked that one, really good job. And, for wage growth, which is average hourly wages, the percent change over last year, they had forecast 2.6%, and the actual for December 2015 was 2.3%. Good job.

Wathen: It's not so surprising, actually. I thought about that a little bit, and if you get the unemployment rate right, you're probably going to nail wage growth, because if--

Lapera: That's true.

Wathen: --unemployment is low, you expect wage growth to be x%.

Lapera: Yeah. They were pretty good at a lot of the jobs metrics in general.

Wathen: Right, yeah. Luckily, that's kind of been a thing where you can just say, "Unemployment will go a little higher, wages might go a little higher." There's a lot of industries right now that are really hurting from higher labor costs, which is, I guess, good if you're a worker, not so great if you're an investor.

Lapera: Yeah (laughs). But, yeah, standards of living, that's nice. I don't miss those minimum wage days.

Wathen: (laughs) No.

Lapera: And, I was in high school and I had parents supporting me. So, I can't even imagine what it would be like ...

Wathen: Right. In high school, I worked at a golf course for all of about a month before I was promptly fired, and making minimum wage for that month was not fun.

Lapera: Yeah. I guess I made minimum wage through most of college, too. Ugh. And, back then, it was low. Back then it was like $5.25 or something like that.

Wathen: Right, yeah, no. Back when I was in college, it would have been something like that. I owned my own business in college. I was probably making minimum wage, though, because I was working way too much.

Lapera: (laughs) And then, the last one we have for you guys is the real GDP. Forecast was 3%, and then I went and looked it up and the actual one was 2%. 

Wathen: Which, not too bad. That's kind of a hard one to nail, because, if you get the oil price wrong, you're going to miss that.

Lapera: Yeah. So, all things considered, it wasn't a bad guess.

Wathen: No, it wasn't really. I mean, you could throw darts, probably, as long as you had a number between 1-4%, you might be pretty close. (laughs) 

Lapera: Yeah. There you go. (laughs) Job advice from Jordan Wathen for all the forecasters out there. (laughs) 

Wathen: (laughs) Yeah, let me teach you how to do an analyst's job: just throw darts at numbers. It's fantastic.

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