I woke with a start a few weeks ago to a radio interview with Paul Saffo, a Stanford futurist. He definitely caught my attention, because I coupled what he was saying with a recent speech by Vanguard's John Bogle. Combining both sages, I found my own view of the future coming into sharper focus -- at least as it applied to me.
According to Saffo, predicting the future is supposedly "easy if you know how to do it." That got me hooked, but then he went on to say that when the conventional wisdom as to what will happen in the future is widely scattered (as it is today), what typically happens will be a big surprise -- an event of major intensity.
The most recent of Saffo's writings is an article in the July Harvard Business Review, "Six Rules for Effective Forecasting," which doesn't exactly support the idea of predictions being easy.
In simple terms, you create a "cone" of possible future events and try to have the cone encompass as many reasonable events as possible -- both positive and negative. The key is to distinguish the highly improbable from the wildly impossible. Some of the highly improbable may already be happening, but with very limited distribution. So, the future may have arrived, but only a small portion of it.
Out there at the edge of the cone, we can look for failures to make an educated guess as to what may come out of nowhere in the future. For instance, robotic pets haven't made it yet, but those robotic vacuum cleaners called "Roomba's" have been given names by two-thirds of their owners. This may be a sign of robotics starting to make headway into human relationships.
Holding opinions weakly and being willing to shift gears is critical to successful forecasting. Too often, we pick a few facts and stuff them into a belief system that we have chosen because it makes us feel comfortable.
Any belief as to what will happen going forward, however, will have more predictive value in direct proportion to its look-back into the past.
The historical rear-view mirror, according to Saffo, is an "extraordinarily powerful forecasting tool." The recent past doesn't tell us much, but we tend to latch on to it because it is the most familiar and convincing when we are looking for certainty. We also need to recognize a period when a responsible futurist needs to just fold the tent and refrain from trying to predict the future until things settle down.
This is essentially John Bogle's warning in his speech titled "Black Monday and Black Swans," presented to the Risk Management Association at its annual meeting in October. He cited Oct. 19, 1987, as the day when the stock market lost 25 percent of its value -- $1 trillion. He points out that in the stock market "anything can happen."
Today, when Bob Brinker is predicting a 15 percent rise in market values by the end of 2008 and David Tice is predicting a 60 percent decline, I call that a widely divergent range of opinion. Bogle points out that we have had dramatic one-day moves in stock prices recently, both up and down, with a frequency unmatched in history. What does this demonstration of extreme volatility mean? How should an investor react?
Setting aside compulsive gamblers, one thing we know about our human condition is that any euphoria we gain by winning is more than offset by the anguish we experience by losing.
If we're heading into a time of extreme uncertainty, based on what Bogle and Saffo are trying to say, then we may want to lean our existing asset mix toward more protection against the downside to limit our anguish.
For investors who are new to the investment experience, however (or for any new money being added to investment programs), volatility is a gift from the gods. It is the engine of so-called dollar-cost averaging, in which shares will be bought at cheaper prices when a constant dollar amount is invested each period.
The most constructive response to a glimpse at an uncertain future is to review, once again, our personal objectives.
Does an educated guess tell us that our investment mix is on track with reasonable objectives and expectations regardless of what the future brings, or is it just a product of wishful thinking?