With so many commentators and reporters braying about the precise odds of a recession these days, there is a 100% chance that The Business Press Maven is going to pound his head repeatedly on his desk for a simple reason: When everyone starts talking like each other instead of following their own common sense... it is upsetting.
Moreover, it is misleading.
Conforming to faddish verbal convention in economic procrastinating (or reporting) takes the place of reason. Following the latest verbal tic is like trusting a horoscope. That means if you, the savvy investor, follow these formulaic predictions, there is a 90% chance that... Good Lord, it
I am speaking about the latest word in ready made quotes, articles and headlines: just spout off (or write) about your guess for the precise numeric chance of a recession and you'll be quoted or get good play for your article. And headline writers, in on this latest game, have become oddsmakers.
Have fun with how comically popular it has become. Just don't make the mistake of listening to any of it.
There is no way to confirm this, but I believe this whole sad excuse for public discourse started in a big way earlier this year.
Alan Greenspan, missing the limelight and knowing he had a book to peddle ran off at the mouth about a recession being "probable." Perhaps feeling he overdid it, he then changed his statement. Sort of
downgraded it , if you will.
He said a recession was "possible." This took us into Goofy and Pluto's land of linguistic lunacy, of course, because a recession is always "possible." In fact, figuring for convenience sake that recessions generally run two out of every 10 years, they are always "possible."
At the time, I joked that before you knew it, Greenspan was going to start laying odds like some street-corner bookie. I swear I was joking, but soon and sure enough, Greenspan had the chance of a recession pegged at exactly 33%. Put that figure in your spreadsheet and smoke it!
Then, last week, while on a world book tour to promote
The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World (The Penguin Press), Greenspan (aka Alan the Greek) said that the chance of recession had risen "significantly." How significantly from 33%? He was now on record for "less than 50%."
The only problem is that the difference between 33 and 50 does not seem too significant, and none of it is too far off from the standard chance of, say, 20%. At least it's not far enough off for all the breathlessness.
Pressed into an oddsmaker's corner by
, Alan the Greek answered with what turned into the only one of these headlines that at least elicited a smile:
The 42.35% Chance: A Chat with Greenspan. Want better odds? Once Alan the Greek gets quoted a few times running the line of recessions, fuhgedaboudit, everyone wants a piece of the action.
Look anywhere you want for laughs, but don't take any of it too seriously. A couple of weeks ago,
The Wall Street Journal
weighed in with a headline:
Likelihood of Recession Is Given Better Odds.
How much better? Well, a month ago it was 28%, not much off the natural average. This month it's 36%, which may be the less than 50% that Greenspan was referring so obliquely too. (No words, by the way, on an over/under.)
AOL Money and Finance, writing a few days earlier, had quoted a different survey but structured the entire article around the same sort of Las Vegas line: "Forecasts from economists put the odds of a recession in the next 12 months at one-in-three, according to the Blue Chip Economic Indicators newsletter. A month earlier, the odds were at one-in-four."
Meanwhile, to grab some ink or bandwidth, and maybe even to bully the Fed into lowering rates through the floorboards, a la Countrywide's
Le Man of Orange, everyone and their braying brother was coming up with their own homemade odds.
Here's a Reuters headline about a Financial Times report (it becomes a game of she-told-two-friends):
Freddie CEO puts U.S. recession chance at 40-45 pct: rpt.
As in any case where a convention is just ridiculous, verbal hedging abounds. McClatchy ran this headline:
Odds grow for recession, but lenders hold the key.
In other words, the chance of a recession is up, unless it goes down because lenders start lending again. Lest you think the headline was a fluke, check out the article second line, which lurches this way and that: "Although few economic analysts put the odds of recession at better than 50 percent, most are now upping their probabilities."
In other words a number that always stands at 20 is going up but not very high. And if those lenders -- ah, forget it.
Look, it's a free society, so let them bray about the odds they are setting. But when verbal tics start showing up everywhere, don't take what they are talking about too seriously. There is a better than 42.35% chance your time can be better spent.
One final note -- Bloomberg came out with what is a
good follow-up to my explanation of the disaster that was last week's false float of the rumor that Warren Buffett would buy
. David Wilson does an interesting job looking at what happened to the other six companies Buffett was rumored to buy this year. Five of the companies trade at lower prices than they did when the rumor surfaced, which means that the odds on Bear are... Geez, someone stuff a sock in me. (Editor's note: Done.)
At the time of publication, Fuchs had no positions in any of the stocks mentioned in this column.
A journalist with a background on Wall Street, Marek Fuchs has written the County Lines column for The New York Times for the past five years. He also contributes regular breaking news and feature stories to many of the paper's other sections, including Metro, National and Sports. Fuchs was the editor-in-chief of Fertilemind.net, a financial Web site twice named "Best of the Web" by Forbes Magazine. He was also a stockbroker with Shearson Lehman Brothers in Manhattan and a money manager. He is currently writing a chapter for a book coming out in early 2007 on a really embarrassing subject. He lives in a loud house with three children. Fuchs appreciates your feedback;
to send him an email.