It is that time of the year when reports such as ‘Market Outlook for 2024’ show up in our inboxes. Joe Wiggins of Behavioural Investment reminds us of the futility of making such forecasts about entities such as the market which are inherently in the short term (yes, one year is by any measure a short time period in equity markets).

So why is it hard to predict stock prices in the short term?

“In simple terms, equity returns have three drivers – changes in valuation, dividend payments and earnings growth. Over short horizons it is often valuation changes (or what we might also call fluctuating sentiment) that dominate; whilst as the horizon extends it is cash flows and their growth that matters.
When we forecast the year ahead in equity markets, it is largely an exercise in anticipating changes in sentiment. In essence we are asking – how will the market (other investors) react to future events? Which is quite tricky.”

But why do people indulge in it?
“Unfortunately, the most persuasive reason is that such short-termism is an unshakeable industry standard. I have worked in investment markets for twenty years and when people ask me about what I expect ‘the market’ to do next year I feel embarrassed saying “I have no idea”, even though it should be more embarrassing actually offering a confident forecast.”

So what should we focus on?
“The truth is most people owning equities should be doing so to capture long-run returns by investing in a collection of companies generating a rising stream of real cash flows through time. Attempts to predict how the market might be pricing those cash flows over any given year is entirely fruitless and counterproductive. *

This is not simply a case of more wildly inaccurate forecasts in financial markets, but another example of the incessant implicit encouragement of damaging investor behaviour. The more we see these types of predictions, the more people think that equity markets are somehow stable rather than noisy, and that investing is about making short-run estimates of impossibly complex things.

We need to spend less time on spurious forecasts and more time on educating investors about what really matters.

How will equity markets perform in 2024? I have no idea.”

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