Markets are not God.

To many people, this statement is a form of economic blasphemy.

I suggest those people should get over it. In the past, I’ve challenged the issue of how “predictive” markets actually are. I note that many people read what they want into short term jags and twists, despite the obvious limitations of such forecasting. Even longer term trends are less revealing of the future than they are of the recent past — other than to say that the trend is more likely to continue than not.

Consider the Democratic Caucus in Iowa. There’s been a solid year of campaigning leading up to the Iowa Caucuses, with the last 3 months totally intense; Its the first — and some will argue the most influential — primary of the entire process. If any prediction market should function correctly, this one was it. No excuses, just right or wrong forecasts. Otherwise, the markets would amount to little more than a polling mechanism of popular opinion.

Up until a few days before the primary, this market’s “prediction” was that Dean would win — and do so handily.

The Prediction Markets got it dead wrong:

Predict This!

dconv04

The chart shows exactly where each candidates “futures” traded. The Dean futures had reached a peak of 76 cents late November, and maintained a fairly high value until just before the primary. In early January, they were still as high as 60 cents or so.

Meanwhile, Kerry has been trading no higher than 35 cents since 11 months prior in February 2003. Kerry went mostly sideways (with a slight negative bias) until August, when he started trending down more rapidly. In December, Kerry futures traded at just a few pennies. He had one last “dead cat bounce” to a dime, and then slumped back to 2 cents in early January 2004.

So much for the predictive value of futures markets.

The current Democratic National Convention Nomination Market shows a very different picture. Dean dropped some 75% to 15 cents or so. Meanwhile, Kerry is partying like he’s Yahoo! and its 1999: His futures rallied about 3,000%, from 2 cents to 60 cents in a week. Talk about overbought!

The stock market’s up since March — therefore it must be predicting a recovery, right? Well, not necessarily. We’ve had 4 previous bear market rallies since 2000, although this one has lasted the longest by a large margin. But ask yourself: What was the market predicting late February 2000, when the Nasdaq broke 5,000? What was it predicting in October 2003, at Nasdaq 1,100?

There are myriad problems with this form of interpretation. Financial markets act not as “predictors,” in my opinion, but rather as future discounting mechanisms. Think of them as racetracks: you get paid lower odds the better the horse looks before a race. When the nag appears ill, old or tired, the odds are highest, and buyers get the greatest potential payoff. When the steed starts to look healthier, the odds slide lower — they get “discounted” — as an economic recovery starts looking more and more likely.

If “Prediction Markets” do not actually predict the future, than what do they actually do? I suggest they merely reflect the majority opinion at a given moment. That does not imbue them with any special omniscience. I think of them as polls that avoid random spoofing ’cause the polled must pay an entry fee to participate. That generates more serious responses than other polling data — but the answers are just as potentially wrong as any other future guess. Like the majority, sometimes they are right, and sometimes they are wrong.

I’m not suggesting that market data can’t be informative. In the hands of thoughtful and skilled analyst, it can indeed impart some measure of knowledge. But interpreting market data is far more complex and significantly less predictive than is the common wisdom on Wall Street.

What, then, can we learn from futures markets? The smart answer is, “It depends.” Interpretating what markets are saying requires flexibility, skepticism, and an open mind. It behooves the market watcher to recognize that “the crowd” is what takes markets higher — or lower. One must also recognize that when the crowd turns into a thoughtless mob, a reversal of fortune becomes ever more likely.

The sooner people understand what market data suggests, the more financially secure they will be in their own futures. “Thy shall have no false idols before me,” exhorts the old testament. Markets are not God. People who think they are eventually succumb to a Hell — tragic losses — of their own making.

UPDATE: 01/28/04 3:48pm
Frontline has a Presidential Futures Market, albeit one where you do not have to put any money at risk, thus removing what little predictive powers it might have had. Hey everybody, its an internet poll!

Source:
via Junkie Wire

Iowa Electronic Markets

http://www.biz.uiowa.edu

2000 – 2003 Rally Comparisons, Excel (July 2003) Download file

Category: Finance, Politics

Please use the comments to demonstrate your own ignorance, unfamiliarity with empirical data and lack of respect for scientific knowledge. Be sure to create straw men and argue against things I have neither said nor implied. If you could repeat previously discredited memes or steer the conversation into irrelevant, off topic discussions, it would be appreciated. Lastly, kindly forgo all civility in your discourse . . . you are, after all, anonymous.

17 Responses to “Iowa and Prediction Markets”

  1. clarence says:

    Isn’t the efficiency of the Iowa markets fatally compromised by the ban on short selling? (To go long all other choices can’t be as profitable as selling shor the Dean “futures”….but you couldn’t.)

  2. Clarence raises an interesting question — and I’m not sure what the correct answer is. But this is certainly a valid issue worthy of additional discussion.

    Let’s take it a step further: Does the uptick rule mean that the efficiency of U.S. equity markets are compromised? How about stock that cannot be borrowed to be shorted? What impact does that have?

    And stock where there are no options trading — that reduces the (alleged) efficiency of the markets also. (For that matter, what other Futures cannot you not short?)

    When you a short a stock, you must (literally) borrow shares of it from an owner to sell.

    Futures are merely a derivative, with no actual shares or limited float. The lack of shorting shouldn’t have much of an impact. After all, without the limitation of borrowed shares based upon actual float, one could end up with potenitally many more shares sold short than there actually are.

  3. Dave says:

    THat Dean “futures” chart reminds me of your previous “Three peaks and a Domed House” article – scaringly so.

    Dave

    [Editor’s note: Dave refers to this URL: http://bigpicture.typepad.com/comments/2003/10/3_peaks_and_dom.html ]

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  5. Marc Brazeau says:

    The Iowa Electronics Market touts itself as a more accurate predictor of elections than polls. Given the often wi[l]de fluctuations, I couldn’t see how this could be the case. Then I looked at their literature on the subject. They are more predictive in the last day or so before the event that the futures are sold for. So whoopededoo.

    Nevertheless the are interesting to watch how they correlate to news. When Wesley Clark entered the race, he along with was bundled along with Dean. While Clark’s initial blunders in those first two weeks didn’t hurt him especially in the polls, the ROF, which included Clark and Dean who was doing well, took a beating. As did the ROF in the Presidential Election market.

    Were the traders who had to put their money where their mouth was picking up on Clark’s (to most people’s) suprising weakness as a candidate? Or were they spooked? Impossible to tell. Amusing to ponder.

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  12. a says:

    New to this. What does ROF mean on the chart?

    Thanks,

    n

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  16. Marcus says:

    I am an active Iowa “investor” and can answer a few questions.
    1. ROF refers to “Rest of Field”. For example today’s Republican ROF includes everyone except Guilianni, McCain, Romney. If someone, say Newt, in the field gains strength, then Newt is taken out of the field — if you had one share of the field they change it to one share of the Newt and you retain one of the field (now without Newt). There is no effect to the value of your portfolio when that happens, but you gain some flexibility in your trading.
    2. While you can’t “short” you can do something similar through their concept of “bundles.” You can buy 1 bundle of the Republicans for $1 and you get one of every stock, including one of ROF. If you hold them all, one of your shares Must win and you get your $1 back. To “short” Romney, you would sell your Romney stock (going for about $0.15) and keep the others. Now if anyone except Romney wins you get $1 for the win and $0.15 for the Romney stock you sold; in essence you shorted Romney and made 15% profit for you initial $1.00 investment. You could watch Romney fall to $0.05 then buy a share back. You now own one share of everyone again so you are guaranteed $1 for the win and $0.10 for your profit on the fall in Romney; a tidy 10% profit and you don’t risk a flukey Romney surge costing your everything.

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