2016 in Review: Best of the Silver Bullet Awards Part One

Since the earliest days of A Dash of Insight, Jeff has brought attention to journalists and bloggers who dispel myths in financial media. We congratulate these writers with the Silver Bullet Award – named in honor of the Lone Ranger, who lived by a strict code: “…that all things change but truth, and that truth alone, lives on forever.”

In a year rife with misinformation and disinformation, it is fitting that we gave out a record 23 Silver Bullet Awards in 2016. For that reason, we’ll be doing this year in two parts; our winners for the first half of the year are summarized below. Readers may also want to check into our 20132014, and 2015 compilations, as many of the same issues persist to this day.

Have any thoughts or predictions on what will dominate news cycles in 2017? Know of a great analyst flying below our radar? Feel free to post in the comments with any suggestions or nominations.

1/3/16

It didn’t take long to find our first Silver Bullet winner of 2016. Matt Busigin took on US Recession Callers ahead of the ISM data release:

Through a combination of quackery, charlatanism, and inadequate utilisation of mathematics, callers for US recession in 2016 are embarrassing themselves. Again.

The most prominent reason for recession calling may well be the Institute of Supply Management’s Manufacturing Purchasing Manager Index. The problem with this recession forecasting methodology is that it doesn’t work.

As we now know, the US economy did not slip into a recession in 2016 – lending further credence to Busigin’s critique of these methods.

2/7/16

Paul Hickey of Bespoke Investment earned the second Silver Bullet award of 2016. While others were content to see doom and gloom in the level of margin debt on the NYSE, Hickey dismissed this as a minor concern.

Although declining margin levels are often cited as a bearish signal for the market, Hickey believes that it is a small concern given the indicator’s coincidental nature. On the other hand, the prospect of rising rates spooks investors much more, and holds them back from buying stocks.

“Margin debt rises when the market rises and falls when the market falls,” Hickey said. “If you look at the S&P 500’s average returns after periods when margin debt falls 10 percent from a record high, the forward returns aren’t much different than the overall returns for all periods.”

3/5/16

The causation-correlation fallacy is a favorite of ours on A Dash. Robert Novy-Marx distinguished himself with an excellent paper titled “Predicting anomaly performance with politics, the weather, global warming, sunspots, and the stars.”

“This paper shows that several interesting variables appear to have power predicting the performance of some of the best known anomalies. Standard predictive regressions fail to reject the hypothesis that the party of the US President, the weather in Manhattan, global warming, El Niño, sunspots, or the conjunctions of the planets are significantly related to anomaly performance. These results are striking and surprising. In fact, some readers might be inclined to reject some of this paper’s conclusions solely on the grounds of plausibility.”

We often note how bloggers and media search back to find tedious explanations and tie a day together. For more reading, we recommend our old post “The Costly Craving for Explanations.”

3/20/16

“Davidson,” by way of Todd Sullivan, was recognized for writing on the confusion of nominal and real data on Retain and Food Service Sales. His key takeaway:

Retail and Food Service Sales are at the highest levels ever measured and trending higher. Would you believe that today’s pace is more than 35% higher than our last recovery. Comments in the media would lead you to believe otherwise. Perhaps you have heard a number of recession forecasts. I have heard at least a dozen well known investors say a recession will occur before this year is out. My view differs considerably and remains very positive.

3/26/16

Jacob Wolinsky found it suspicious that Harry Dent was predicting the next big crash – and happened to have just the product to help investors cope. This “Rounded Top” chart had started to make its way across the panicky world of financial media:

The whole of Wolinsky’s article is still worth a read (especially given its twist ending).

4/3/16

The economic impact of lower oil prices in early 2016 was surprising to many observers. We recognized Professor Tim Duy for his research on the economic impact of lower oil prices.

This problem, however, just scratches the surface. Look at either of the first two charts above and two red flags should leap off the screen. The first is the different scales, often used to overemphasize the strength of a correlation. The second is the short time span, often used to disguise the lack of any real long term relationship (I hope I remember these two points the next time I am inclined to post such a chart).

Consider a time span that encompassed the entirety of the 5-year, 5-year forward inflation expectations:

4/10/16

If we spent a little time looking for the newest conspiracy theory about the Federal Reserve, we could probably give out the Silver Bullet every week. Ethan Harris of Bank of America Merril Lynch (via Business Insider) got this week’s award for shutting down a new “theory” about central banks and the dollar.

“There is a much simpler explanation for all of this. Central banks have turned more dovish because they are being hurt by common shocks: slower global growth and a risk-off trade in global capital markets,” he argued.

“Hence it is in the individual interest of the ECB to stimulate credit and bank lending, the BOJ to push interest rates into negative territory and the Fed to move more cautiously in hiking rates,” he continued.

Some may also point out that there’s a gap between Yellen’s recent messages and some of the recent speeches from FOMC members.

But Harris has thoughts on this, too:

  1. Yellen has consistently leaned more dovish than others.
  2. Most of those more hawkish speeches were from nonvoting members.

4/17/16

The mythology surrounding the Fed bled over into the next week as well. We gave Steven Saville a Silver Bullet award for targeting ZeroHedge with this very thorough rebuttal:

A post at ZeroHedge (ZH) on 8th April discusses an 11th April Fed meeting as if it were an important and unusual event. According to the ZH post:

With everyone’s focus sharply attuned on anything to do with the Fed’s rate hike policy, many will probably wonder why yesterday the Fed announced that this coming Monday, April 11, the Fed will hold a closed meeting “under expedited procedures” during which the Board of Governors will review and determine advance and discount rates charged by the Fed banks.

As a reminder, the last time the Fed held such a meeting was on November 21, less than a month before it launched its first rate hike in years.

As explained at the TSI Blog last November in response to a similar ZH post, these “expedited, closed” Fed meetings happen with monotonous regularity. For example, there were 5 in March, 4 in February and 5 in January. Furthermore, ZH’s statement that 21 November was the last time the Fed held such a meeting to “review and determine advance and discount rates charged by the Fed banks” is an outright falsehood. The fact is that a meeting for this purpose happens at least once per month. For example, there were 2 such meetings in March and 1 in February.

4/23/16

During the economic recovery following the Great Recession, critics often argued that net job creation emphasized part-time and low-paying jobs. Jeffry Bartash of MarketWatch thought to look at the data, and concluded the US economy is still creating well-paid jobs. The key takeaway is in the following chart:

5/8/16

Breaking down mean averages can produce some strange results, and you can never be sure how financial bloggers might spin that data. We gave a Silver Bullet award to Jeff Reeves for breaking down this baffling valuation of Tesla.

$620,000 for every car it delivered last year, or $63,000 for every car it hopes to produce in 2020.

By comparison, General Motors Co’s (GM.N) $48 billion market value is equivalent to about $4,800 for every vehicle it sold last year.

Reeves’ full article, still available on MarketWatch, is still very smart and very readable.

5/21/16

The “flattening” yield curve had become the newest scare issue by late May. Barron’s Gene Epstein and Bonddad’s New Deal Democrat both took this to task, with satisfying results. In particular, the latter’s article had a solid mix of compelling charts with snappy writing:

In the last week or so there have been a spate of articles – from the usual Doomer sources but also from some semi-respectable sites like Business Insider vans an investment adviser or two ,see here ( https://lplresearch.com/2016/05/19/is-the-yield-curve-signaling-trouble-… ) – to the effect that the yield curve is flattening and OMG RECESSION!!! Here’s a typical Doomer graph – that draws a trend line that ignores the 1970s and neglects to mention that 2 of the 4 inversions even within the time specified don’t fit:

5/29/16

We gave this week’s award to the former President of the Minneapolis Fed, Narayana Kocherlakota. As conspiracy theories persisted, he explained the nature of Fed meetings and their timing:

Timing alone, though, hardly merits so much attention. To understand why, consider two possible scenarios. In one, the Fed starts raising rates in June and then adds another quarter percentage point at every second policy-making meeting (once every three months) for the next three years. In the other, the Fed waits until the second half of 2017 and then adds a quarter percentage point at each of the next 12 meetings. The second path represents slightly easier monetary policy, but most economic models would suggest that there would be almost no difference in the effect on employment or inflation.

6/12/16

New Deal Democrat earned a second Silver Bullet award for his work debunking a notoriously deceptive chart:

“The problem with this graph is that includes two slightly to significantly lagging indicators.  Your employer doesn’t start paying withholding taxes until after you are hired.  State tax receipts aren’t paid until a month or a quarter after the spending or other taxable event has occurred.  Worse, since both have seasonality, both have to be measured on a YoY basis, which means the turn in the data will come after the actual turn in the economy.”

Conclusion – Part One

As always, you can feel free to contact us with recommendations for future Silver Bullet prize winners at any time. Whenever someone takes interest in defending a thankless but essential cause, we hope you’ll find them here. Expect to see Part Two of our Silver Bullet review later on in the week. Happy New Year!