The future is unpredictable and ‘tail-end consequences’ can devastate


We humans hate uncertainty. In dangerous times, we crave assurance if we do X and Y, then Z will occur and all will be good again. To feed the media beast, there is never a shortage of pundits bellowing predictions with great authority and confidence. Unfortunately, the harsh truth is no one knows what’s going to happen.

As economist John Kenneth Galbraith famously said, “There are two kinds of forecasters: those who don’t know and those who don’t know they don’t know.”

Howard Marks, co-chairman of Oaktree Capital, recently wrote two terrific pieces on the importance of understanding the future is unpredictable, “Uncertainty” and “Uncertainty II.” According to Marks, we should be leery of some dangerous tendencies regarding expertise:

  • to confuse general intelligence with knowledge of the facts relative to a given field,
  • to confuse factual knowledge with superior insight,
  • to conflate expertise and insight with the ability to predict the future,
  • to treat experts in one field as if they’re knowledgeable about all others, and
  • to credit rich and successful people will all of the above.

The field of economics is not a “real” science with hard and fast rules like chemistry, where combining A with B results in C, every time. In economics/investing, there are only historical patterns that tend to repeat, but they’re still only tendencies. Additionally, we all carry the baggage of our own behavioral biases, which color our view of the future.

Hindsight bias refers to our ability to misremember past decisions in ways that make us look smarter. Attribution bias means when things turn out well, we attribute the outcome to our skills. When they turn out poorly, we blame outside forces beyond our control. Confirmation bias is our tendency to give too much weight to information that supports our existing beliefs and discounting the rest.

Our most insidious bias is overconfidence, our tendency to overrate our abilities, knowledge and skill, leading to a false sense of security. As Mark Twain said, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you in trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

Humility is underrated. Dr. Anthony Fauci has been America’s top expert on infectious diseases for 36 years, but stated in testimony before the U.S. Senate, “But I am very careful and hopefully humble in knowing that I don’t know everything about this disease and that’s why I’m very reserved about making broad predictions. “

In probabilistic terms, a “thousand-year” flood may be a “tail-end” (i.e. extraordinarily low probability) event, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen tomorrow. In addition, as the recent catastrophic failures of the Edenville and Sanford Dams in Michigan proved, the “tail-end consequences” can be devastating.

In fact, Warren Buffett said in Berkshire-Hathaway’s 2014 shareholder letter, “We will always be prepared for the thousand-year flood; in fact, if it occurs we will be selling life jackets to the unprepared.” During the Great Financial Crisis a decade ago, corporate titans including Goldman Sachs and General Electric were forced to turn to Buffett for financial life jackets.

Because Buffett understands low probability events can and do happen, he avoids debt, even as corporate America has been bingeing on nearly “free” money to juice returns for a decade. “Unquestionably, some people have become very rich through the use of borrowed money,” he said. “However, that’s also been a way to get very poor. When leverage works, it magnifies your gains. Your spouse thinks you’re clever and your neighbors get envious. But leverage is addictive. Once having profited from its wonders, very few people retreat to more conservative practices. And as we all learned in third grade — and some relearned in 2008 — any series of positive numbers, however impressive the numbers may be, evaporates when multiplied by a single zero.”

The pandemic didn’t cause the bankruptcies of Hertz, Diamond Offshore Drilling, J. Crew, Neiman Marcus, J.C. Penney and others, but their high debt loads left them vulnerable to this devastating tail-end consequence. Unfortunately, there will be many more.

Using auto racing as an analogy, Buffett said, “to finish first, you must first finish.”

“Though practically all days are relatively uneventful, tomorrow is always uncertain. (I felt no special apprehension on December 6, 1941 or Sept. 10, 2001). And if you can’t predict what tomorrow will bring, you must be prepared for whatever it does.” Finally, “in our view, it is madness to risk losing what you need in pursuing what you simply desire.”

Mickey Kim is the chief operating officer and chief compliance officer for Columbus-based investment adviser Kirr Marbach & Co. Kim also writes for the Indianapolis Business Journal. He can be reached at 812-376-9444 or [email protected]. Send comments to [email protected].

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