Forecasts Suck

Great column from Bob Seawright, via Josh Brown.  An interesting and key point:

The now-defunct Bear Stearns won a noteworthy 2002 legal decision involving former Fed Governor and then-Bear Chief Economist Wayne Angell over advice he and the firm gave to a Bear Stearns client named Count Henryk de Kwiatkowski (really) after the Count lost hundreds of millions of dollars in a just a few weeks (really) following that advice by trading currency futures on margin. The Count had been born in Poland, escaped invading Nazis, been banished to Siberia by the Soviets, escaped and travelled across Asia on foot to Tehran, talked his way into the British Embassy, became a renowned RAF pilot, moved to Canada, became an engineer, and made a fortune trading used airliners, most famously selling nine 747s to the Shah of Iran over a game of backgammon in the royal palace (really). He also became the owner of the famous thoroughbred racing institution, Calumet Farm (really).

Bear offered the Count “a level of service and investment timing comparable to that which [Bear] offer[ed its] largest institutional clients” (which is not to say that they were any good at it). The key trade was a huge and ultimately disastrous bet that the U.S. dollar would rise in late 1994 and early 1995. At one point, the Count’s positions totaled $6.5 billion nominally and accounted for 30 percent of the total open interest in certain currencies on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. The jury awarded a huge verdict to the Count but the appellate court reversed. The appellate judges determined, quite conventionally, that brokers may not be held liable for honest opinions that turn out to be wrong when providing advice on non-discretionary accounts.

But I’m not primarily interested in the main story. Instead, I’m struck by a line of testimony offered at trial by then-Bear CEO Jimmy Cayne that does not even show up in subsequent court opinions, despite extensive recitals of the facts of the case. The generally “cocksure” Cayne apparently thought that his firm could be in trouble so he took a creative and disarmingly honest position given how aggressive Bear was in promoting Angell’s alleged expertise to its customers. Cayne brazenly asserted that Angell was merely an “entertainer” whose advice should never give rise to liability.

Economists are right only 35 to 40 percent of the time, Cayne testified. “They don’t really have a good record as far as predicting the future,” he said. “I think that it is entertainment, but he probably doesn’t think it is” (and I doubt that the Count was much amused). Cayne even noted that Angell did not have a real job description at Bear (a claim that Angell’s bio seems to support). “I don’t know how he spends most of his time,” testified Cayne . “He travels a lot and visits people and has lunches and dinners and he is an entertainer.”

Notice that Cayne did not even pay lip service to the idea that Bear’s clients were entitled to the firm’s best efforts based upon the best research (or even their best research). Moreover, he did not seem to think that the Count deserved honesty together with competent advice. For Cayne, the goal was simply to be entertaining and to make sales. That the Count lost hundreds of millions of dollars was merely collateral damage (and not even necessarily unfortunate at that).

So this anecdote is kind of about how Wall Street advice sucks, but click on the article, he goes into a lot of detail about how their economic forecasts suck as well.  He also makes a good point about how every action you take depends on your belief about what is going to happen in the future.  I file that under “check your assumptions,” but certainly it’s related.

Barry Rithotlz has compiled a list of how to check your assumptions and remain more or less unaffected by the entertainers.  In the end, he gets back to the really important assumption:

10 How am I spending my time? How do I want to spend my time? This is very important, one that many folks don’t think about until it’s way late.

Time is an extremely limited resource, one that you should use appropriately. Are you spending this finite resource doing things you dislike, or are you pursuing that which gives you the most satisfaction?

Remember, everybody gets the same 24 hours each day. What differentiates some people from others is how they spend that precious resource.

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