When 85-year-old Yogi Berra opines, “the future ain’t what it used to be,” it should be a reminder of how impossible it is to predict coming events with any accuracy. The best we can hope for is an educated guess. One of the best forward indicators, actually, is the bulls/bears+bulls index. Historically, when money managers as a group are more than 50 percent bullish, the market usually tanks soon after and vice versa. At least investment professionals are good for something, even if it’s not for what they would want us to think they know. That index is still bearish.
Occasionally, I hazard a guess as to what I think the future might bring to the stock market. However, I don’t make the mistake of trying to factor in my own lists of positives and negatives. Like most people, I tend to make decisions based on what I feel like doing and then pick whatever facts I need to rationalize my choice. To protect myself, I rely on a composite of different professional predictive services. These are provided by people who make educated guesses after a lot of study, and they don’t manage money. The latter trait leaves no ulterior motive to paint a rosy picture of the future.
I’ve found New Hampshire’s Institute of Trend Research (www.ITReconomics.com) to be one of the most exhaustive attempts at predicting the future. They claim to have made correct calls 94.7 percent of the time over the past 60 years. The trends are based on past history of business cycles in all major components of the economy. The assessment of where we might be tomorrow with each of those components is based on the measurement of the rate of change. Remember your high school calculus? You had to measure not just the direction of a line but the rate at which the direction was changing. That was the “second derivative” and the rate of change is one of the key forward indicators of any attempt to peer into the future. That’s basically what the people at ITR are using, and as soothsayers go, I’ve found their track record to be excellent.
So where does ITR say the economy and stock markets are headed for the next few years? Things are looking good on both counts for the balance of 2012 and most of 2013. Generally positive market predictions don’t go beyond 2013 but the economic predictions are more specific and extend to a soft landing in 2014. It doesn’t matter who gets elected as president. In either case, lower government spending and higher taxes will cut into consumer spending. Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve is committed to keeping interest rates low into 2014. The expectation is that rates will not rise more than 3 percent beyond that point for the foreseeable future.
For my part, the future doesn’t matter that much. It shouldn’t. I’m reasonably diversified with a wide variety of investment types -- including a collection of bond funds. I’m psychologically prepared to be unpleasantly surprised, and I have no illusions of being able to anticipate what the future might bring. I’d prefer to be pleasantly surprised, however, and to the extent that history repeats itself, there’s a high probability that I will be. In contrast, I’m amazed at those who, in casual conversation, imply that they can second-guess the combined impact of events in Europe, a new round of home foreclosures, a sudden rise in interest rates, China ceasing its funding of our debt and any number of other gremlins lying in wait under the bridge.
People inclined to create their own reasons to worry would be better off subscribing to one of the ITR publications. Real clouds on the horizon may be worthy of concern, but let professionals determine what’s real. ITR’s people back in New England huddle over their computers during the cold winter months followed by “mud season” and then, later, the black fly infestation. After a few months of summer the cycle starts all over again -- back inside. What their expertise creates for us may sound like the Alfred E. Newman “What, Me Worry?” school of investment management, but it certainly represents a contributing factor to investment success and peace of mind. Meanwhile, I’m headed to Vermont for my 50th high school reunion in the building where I used to wrestle with those word problems.