Monday, March 31, 2008

We Just Can't Predict

"The Scandal Of Prediction"
from The Black Swan
by Nicholas Taleb
pages 160-162


I once gave a talk to policy wonks at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., challenging them to be aware of our weaknesses in seeing ahead.

The attendees were tame and silent. What I was telling them was against everything they believed and stood for; I had gotten carried away with my aggressive message, but they looked thoughtful, compared to the testosterone-charged characters one encounters in business. I felt guilty for my aggressive stance. Few asked questions. The person who organized the talk and invited me must have been pulling a joke on his colleagues. I was like an aggressive atheist making his case in front of a synod of cardinals, while dispensing with the usual formulaic euphemisms.

Yet some members of the audience were sympathetic to the message. One anonymous person (he is employed by a governmental agency) explained to me privately after the talk that in January 2004 his department was forecasting the price of oil for twenty-five years later at $27 a barrel, slightly higher than what it was at the time. Six months later, around June 2004, after oil doubled in price, they had to revise their estimate to $54 (the price of oil is currently, as I am writing these lines, close to $79 a barrel). It did not dawn on them that it was ludicrous to forecast a second time given that their forecast was off so early and so markedly, that this business of forecasting had to be somehow questioned. And they were looking twenty-five years ahead! Nor did it hit them that there was something called an error rate to take into account. *

Forecasting without incorporating an error rate uncovers three fallacies, all arising from the same misconception about the nature of uncertainty.

The first fallacy: variability matters. The first error lies in taking a projection too seriously, without heeding its accuracy. Yet, for planning purposes, the accuracy in your forecast matters far more the forecast itself. I will explain it as follows.

Don’t cross a river if it is four feet deep on average. You would take a different set of clothes on your trip to some remote destination if I told you that the temperature was expected to be seventy degrees Fahrenheit, with an expected error rate of forty degrees than if I told you that my margin of error was only five degrees. The policies we need to make decisions on should depend far more on the range of possible outcomes than on the expected final number. I have seen, while working for a bank, how people project cash flows for companies without wrapping them in the thinnest layer of uncertainty. Go to the stockbroker and check on what method they use to forecast sales ten years ahead to “calibrate” their valuation models. Go find out how analysts forecast government deficits. Go to a bank or security-analysis training program and see how they teach trainees to make assumptions; they do not teach you to build an error rate around those assumptions—but their error rate is so large that it is far more significant than the projection itself!...

* While forecast errors have always been entertaining, commodity prices have been a great trap for suckers. Consider this 1970 forecast by U.S. officials (signed by the U.S. Secretaries of the Treasury, State, Interior, and Defense): “the standard price of foreign crude oil by 1980 may well decline and will in any event not experience a substantial increase.” Oil prices went up tenfold by 1980. I just wonder if current forecasters lack in intellectual curiosity or if they are intentionally ignoring forecast errors.

Also note this additional aberration: since high oil prices are marking up their inventories, oil companies are making record bucks and oil executives are getting huge bonuses because “they did a good job”—as if they brought profits by causing the rise of oil prices.


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