Easy Money

Let us suppose a fantasy world in which we could sit down in a game of chance with a select group of opponents.  The other players had the following characteristics:

  • They are drawn randomly from the population.  If you think you are smart, they are less smart.
  • They have little education in the relevant subject.  You have an advanced degree, and they either did not take or do not remember Course 101.
  • The opponents have no theoretical or conceptual model — and probably do not understand what that means.
  • The opponents are willing to make big bets on their opinions.

Please keep the scenario in mind.

Ritholtz Bets on the Masses

Over at The Big Picture Barry Ritholtz offers the rather astounding suggestion that when all of the experts in a field agree, it is time to take the other side.  Here is a key quote:

As someone who has been skeptical about the artificially low
inflation and unemployment rates for quite sometime now, the public’s
reaction makes a whole lot of sense. If we believe the negative
sentiment of the American people, then its likely that Inflation has
been much more pervasive than reported by either the top line or the
core.  And the same thinking likely applies to the low unemployment
rate. If we judge by sentiment, perhaps its not as low as advertised.
Ignoring widespread distress in the population is a recipe for major
electoral changes.

Does this really make sense?  Should an investor take action based upon public perceptions of economic statistics — throwing out the opinions of experts?

The Public in Action

To consider the wisdom of betting on the public, let us consider their track record.  We’ll have more to say about this in future articles, but for now let us go to a source highlighted by Barry, Michael Shermer.  (We could cite our past articles on the blunders by individual investors, but for today, let us stick with Barry.)

In Shermer’s book, Why People Believe Weird Things:  Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time, the author, the editor of Skeptic, (now on our list of featured readings) writes as follows:

If we are living in the Age of Science, then why do so many pseudo-scientific and non-scientific beliefs abound?…New Age ideas and nonsense of all sorts have penetrated every nook and cranny of both popular and high culture.

He goes on to cite a Gallup poll showing that 52% believe in Astrology, 46% in ESP, 19% in witches, 22% that aliens have landed on earth, 41% that humans and dinosaurs lived simultaneously, 65% belief in Noah’s flood, and 67% who have had a psychic experience.  42% think they communicate with the dead.

Shall we bet with the public?

Real Life Applications

One application we know about is the world of tournament bridge, where those who have a sound theory and understand odds routinely beat those who do not.  We suppose this is the same in mind sports like chess.

Another application is poker, where the popular conception loses to the expert on a daily basis.  The expert welcomes those with little background or knowledge.

In other casino games, they send a limo for those with a “system.”

Is economics different?

What about the Economy?  And the stock market?

How should we interpret economic data?  Shermer has a useful suggestion:

Science is progressive because its paradigms depend upon the cumulative knowledge gained through experimentation, corroboration, and falsification.  

The key point is that real scientists reveal their theories and data, inviting the criticism and tests of others.  Anyone not offering findings for peer review and analysis is suspect.

The pseudo-science of those criticizing economic data relies on sources that have no peer review.  It is something to think about.

Our Take

There are several easy ways of pandering to public perceptions about the economy, government actions, and stocks.

  • Those who have no real economic credentials gain from disparaging those who do.
  • Those who have never actually developed econometric models — or any models — gain from acting as if these models have no value.
  • Those who have no government experience gain from simplistic interpretations (That is a model!).
  • Those who start with a world view, and then criticize any inconsistent data, can find support for that perception.

The stock market offers the chance for those who can identify the real experts to make easy money.  Most often, this happens when sentiment is at a bullish or bearish extreme, not supported by reality.

One of our missions is to identify such points.  For now, there is a key question:

When experts and the general public disagree, how do you vote — with your money?

Send the limo.  (More later — a lot more.)

(Regular readers will note our current model-based bearish stance.  We write both about fundamentals and current prospects.  Often the sentiment diverges from our sense of opportunity. Our trading reflects the differing time frames).

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  • VennData June 30, 2008  

    I was reading this got done with the first four points and thought it was going to be a discussion about how we selected the President.

  • Mike C July 1, 2008  

    Insightful post, and I like the fantasy world game analogy.
    I too think that when it comes to the economy and the stock market, that going with “general public opinion” probably isn’t a good move as public opinion is probably based on a combination of simple heuristics and gut-level “intuition”.
    I am skeptical that the average Joe is capable of rational, logical analysis. I’ve discussed crude oil pricing with many people not educated in economics and I am amazed by the number who believe that Exxon Mobil has the ability to manipulate and set the world clearing price for crude oil.
    At the same time, many “experts” are hardly any better. Luskin, Kudlow, Lereah, I could go on are all “experts” who consistently demonstrate a lack of expertise, and should be faded most of the time.
    With “inflation”, I think part of the problem is defining exactly what that means. Is inflation the creation of excessive money and credit, or is it a rise in some basket of prices? Is the latter simply a manifestation of the former, and is it possible that during some periods of time, that inflation shows up somewhere else other then consumer prices (stocks in the late 90s, housing in 02-05, and maybe commodities now?).
    I think for the “general public” inflation is what they see on the most regular basis which is food and energy, and I think food and energy occupy much different percentages in calculating “inflation” in terms of the general public perception versus the offical government statistics.

  • Lance July 1, 2008  

    This is what is known as a strawman argument Jeff. Barry is not claiming that the uneducated public understands economics better than economists, or you.
    He is claiming that, inchoate as their impressions may be, that they do know what is happening to their own personal living standards better than economists. Economists can be wrong, and economic data as well.
    When people go to the store and find it much harder to make ends meet than official data implies, it is time for economists to listen and consider whether they are in fact measuring the “cost of living” in the most realistic way.
    You can certainly differ with Barry about whether they are measuring the impact of price changes as ineffectively as he claims without claiming he is using the kind of argument you ridicule above. He has a valid point, which does not make it correct, but it does deserve the kind of response that someone who argues so vociferously for dispassionate analysis should address directly, rather than with an irrelevant rhetorical slight of hand.

  • Lanny July 1, 2008  

    Look like you need to revisit the fallacies of logic because your article is full of it.
    Here is some limited samples:
    Fallacy of composition: “The Public?”
    1. The parts of the whole X have characteristics A, B, C, etc.
    2. Therefore the whole X must have characteristics A, B, C.
    What is the percentage of “the public” does directly involve in “investment” to make your statement “the general public” to reasonably correct? You don’t know?
    Fallacy of composition: “The scientist”
    Economist is still pseudo-scientist and no where approach the level of the hard science scientist like physicists, chemists. Need proof? What is the track record of economists in prediction? Does this approach the level of hard science yet so I can take their words to the bank?
    “When experts and the general public disagree, how do you vote — with your money?”
    When the experts commit errors in their logic and are no better than the “general public”, should you trust them? Of course you do, like the Russian said “Trust but verify”.

  • Marc July 1, 2008  

    Barry R. is really more of an entertainer than a market expert. He’s taken a stance (a very bearish stance) and picks the data to fit. The reality is far more complicated. I’ve seen inflation in some areas and deflation in others. He’d like the lawyer who argues whichever point supports his thesis.
    My take is if you like the idea of being bearish, then Barry is your man.

  • Lord July 1, 2008  

    If one looks at economic forecasting one rapidly comes to the conclusion no such animal exists. Forecasters are backward looking as a whole and merely project past trends. Economists themselves agree they are no good at this. I agree with them. The question is how much one should pay attention to public sentiment. Probably not much either. Actions are more important, but we don’t know those until some time in the future. Might they be more relevant at turning points? Perhaps.

  • Barry Ritholtz July 1, 2008  

    Thats not even remotely close to what I was suggesting.
    Here’ the full article — I suggest your readers compare it to your post

  • George July 1, 2008  

    VennData, with inflation, inflation at it simplest is an increase in the money supply. Too many people get inflation and prices mixed up. Prices are nothing more than a means for distributing information. Increased prices are a bi-product of inflation.

  • Jeff Miller July 1, 2008  

    Barry — I certainly do encourage everyone to read your entire article, which is why I included the link. In fact, I encourage people to read all of your articles, which I often cite in a complimentary fashion.
    I do not agree with your approach to analyzing government data — always something wrong, and always worse than it seems. Your article states quite clearly that if the data do not agree with public perceptions, it is time to look again at the data. Here is another quote:
    “Here’s a suggestion: If the professional economists’ data states that inflation is contained and unemployment modest, and at the same time the population sentiment is screaming as if neither were the case, perhaps its time we consider that it might be the data, and not the population, that is the source of our dispute.”
    This is a bad idea.
    I offered a number of examples — and fairly typical ones — of where public perceptions are way off. They are not a good foundation for developing science. I think this is a fair reading of your suggestion.
    Thanks for stopping, but I wish you would try to be more specific in your comments rather than always claiming to be misunderstood. You could try to clarify your point, for example.

  • Lance July 1, 2008  

    “Your article states quite clearly that if the data do not agree with public perceptions, it is time to look again at the data.”
    “Look again” is what he said, not merely go with public perception, and it is not a bad idea. In fact, it is the essence of good science to look at all evidence, and check beliefs against perceptions which might differ.
    In the end looking at the data and how it is compiled, analyzed and presented may show people’s perceptions are off. However, to dismiss such evidence out of hand, to not look at what you are claiming in light of the felt experience of those whose opinions you are so cavalierly dismissing is bad science.
    Such head in the sand approaches have routinely landed social scientists in intellectual cul de sacs. The harder sciences as well.
    For example, doctors used to ridicule the notions of mothers that their children grew “overnight” and instead trusted their handy growth charts with their smooth growth curves. That is, until researchers found out that the mothers were right. Children would grow substantially in one, two and three day periods, and then stop for extended periods of time. It was only when a researcher took their claims seriously, if only in an attempt to disprove them, that this phenomenon was observed.
    If you want to claim that people’s beliefs about their experiences are mistaken, then you need to carefully analyze the case, with proper attempts to falsify your hypothesis. In fact, it would be more fruitful to actually assume their case was correct and try and see why to discover where the weaknesses in your case lie, even if you are ultimately correct.
    You instead just dismiss it because brighter experts have spoken. That is sloppy, just as sloppy as accepting the earnings projections we have heard over the past year and a half, which have turned into a cruel joke.
    He also wasn’t misunderstood, you claimed something he never said. No reasonable reading would assume he was saying what you claim he was. Nor has Barry ever been one to claim that public perception is necessarily correct. He should be angry and quite irritated. Nor is a link a good excuse. You know as well as any blogger, that only a tiny minority actually click through a link. Most readers accept that the case has been presented fairly. Hopefully the protests against your portrayal will increase the percentage who click through, assuming readers bother to read the comments.
    Finally, this statement is absurd:
    “Barry Ritholtz offers the rather astounding suggestion that when all of the experts in a field agree, it is time to take the other side.”
    Leave aside that Barry said no such thing, the idea that all the experts in any field agree is preposterous, and in this particular case is manifestly untrue, even using your overly credentialed and narrow definition of an expert. The list of people in the field of economics who find the data perplexing and misleading is quite large. In fact the debates about the proper way too figure inflation and track unemployment data are quite fierce.
    Worse still, you have noted that in the past and elide right over that fact in this post.
    Not your best work Jeff, not at all. That you misunderstood him is forgivable, that you pout and smugly tut tut when a simple re-reading in light of the complaints leveled against your post suggests misreading and misunderstanding isn’t the real problem.

  • Lord July 1, 2008  

    A problem with data is it never stands alone. Instead it must be placed into context with other data to build a composite picture of the world. Since it is always old, subject to revision, and often carries substantial error, even if it is the best starting point, it may not be advisable to not look beyond it. I agree subjective opinion and anecdote is not reliable. It is at most an indication further exploration may be needed. Certainly falling home values, tightened credit, rising prices for necessities of food and fuel, and constraints on wage increases are leaving consumers feeling foul. They may well prefer inflation if it meant their wages kept up. The fact that they aren’t is a measure of how successful it has been contained to date. It doesn’t make it any less painful though.

  • RB July 2, 2008  

    Perhaps it might be useful to frame the argument in Mauboussin’s words:
    Briefly put, experts can be wrong when the problem is sufficiently complex and the rules are not specifiable. Problems relating to the economy could, perhaps qualify. There is wisdom in the crowds when conditions of diversity, aggregation and incentives are met. Specifically with regards to polls, I’m not certain the first and last qualify. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t wager money on it.
    I do have issues with hedonic adjustments as I expressed in the oldprof’s previous inflation quiz. But that awaits the oldprof’s next posting on the Bill Gross issue.

  • oldprof July 3, 2008  

    Lance –
    Let me begin by saying that I welcome your participation on my site. While it is nice to get encouragement in my work, I try to learn from those who disagree. I also try to be unfailingly polite to all who participate. I hope you continue to read and comment.
    With respect to your general thrust, I have the following observations:
    I encourage substantive discussion and comments on the specific content of my articles.
    I am far less interested, and find less useful, someone’s attempt to give a “grade” to the oldprof. Frankly, I do not care if you think this is good work or not good work. Just stick to the facts. I am writing a book from which many will benefit. Until you become my editor, I am not too interested in whether you like the content or not. I am also mystified about your speculation about “pouting” or whether Barry has a right to be unhappy.
    Next, I do not need much help on the “straw man” front. This is a typical weasel move of those who are changing positions. I am perfectly willing to allow readers to read Barry’s article and mine and form their own conclusions. And the same goes for comments on how I do links. Get real. I do them the way most people do. Barry has a great method of listing sources and I hope (someday) to catch up. It is difficult to do in the software, and I write at night when my regular work is done. Meanwhile, I try to cite everyone via links.
    I enjoyed your comments on the doctors. I completely agree that individual perceptions differ from the measurement of experts. The issue is when, how, and which is right. That is what I am exploring. I suggest that you look again at Mike C’s comment. What people perceive as the “cost of living” can differ dramatically from an objective inflation measurement. Would you like to have 1970’s health care at 1970’s prices? (I would not, since I would not be here!)
    Most importantly, I want to consider my characterization of Barry’s position. I suggest that you state, in simple terms, exactly what you see as the main point.
    I see it as the following: Barry believes that official stats are misleading and should somehow be corrected. He has stated this many times in many different ways. He sees individual perceptions as evidence. It is completely unclear what he is recommending.
    I note in passing that in our office we admire Barry’s contributions and agree with many of his observations. We are disappointed that he has not engaged in a more collegial fashion, but we understand that he does not come from the academic tradition. To us, he seems very thin-skinned about criticism, while aggressively attacking many pundits.
    But to his article. Does he want a new “Boskin Commission”? Does he think that the Fed or the BLS is going to change their method without any comprehensive review? Does he believe that an investor can profit by betting against the Fed or the BLS? The “take another look” conclusion leaves the reader wanting, and it is open to speculation.
    I have learned from your comment — mostly that I should make a clear statement of my own agenda, which will be forthcoming. A hint — I believe that investors should reject the cottage industry of those criticizing government statistics. It is a losing strategy.
    While I could engage in a point-by-point effort to refute your comments, I choose not to do so. My reason is that I have my own agenda and choose to state the case on my own terms. I also do not want to discourage comments.
    I suggest only one thing for your consideration — credentials. It is not the credential that matters. It is what one learns in earning them. I am writing for open-minded readers who want to learn from those who have actually developed models — over decades of work, those who really understand economics, and those who really study government and know how it works. It is a consistent feature of fund managers that they disparage knowledge they do not have.
    I hope that you will embrace these suggestions and continue your comments, however critical you may be of the substance of my arguments. I also have noted your blog and have added it to my reader.

  • oldprof July 3, 2008  

    Let me begin by saying how much I appreciate the thoughtful and forceful discussion of this subject.
    One of the themes I am working on for my book is what might happen to the newbie investor, checking in on the Internet to get some advice.
    The question, as I see it, is whether to use the best available information, or to accept data that does not have any scientific confirmation. It is a fair question, and one that I intend to explore in detail.
    I recommend that readers look again at Mike C’s comment. Mike often challenges our views, and that is fine, but he seems to have captured the spirit of the article.
    RB and Lord — I agree with your comments. There is a discrepancy between perceptions and official data. What should we make of this? I am a big fan of Mauboussin, and the observations from RB have been on my (overly long) agenda for some time.
    The question of perceptions of the public versus reality (is it really reality?) is an enduring one. My view is that it is a trading opportunity, and I expect to continue to make that case.
    Lance deserves a separate comment.
    Thanks to all.

  • zodiaclove September 27, 2008  

    I do not agree with what you wrote really….
    please explain in detail a bit more for me ;D