“Do not trust any statistic you did not fake yourself” (Winston Churchill)
There is a classic book called “How to lie with Statistics” that I read many, many years ago (actually decades ago!) as a college student. If you’re ever looking for an inexpensive but fun and impactful present for a young student/graduate with the hidden agenda of getting that person interested in math and statistics, this is the one! The book taught me to take with a grain of salt pretty much anything and everything number-related. Anywhere! Whether it’s in the news or in the Personal Finance blogging world and even (particularly?!) in academia. I’m not sure if I was already a severely suspicious (paranoid?) person before reading this or the book turned me into the person I’m today. So, inspired by that book, I thought it would be a nice idea to write a blog post about the different ways numbers are misrepresented in the FIRE/Personal Finance arena. And just to be sure, this post is not to be understood as a manual for fudging numbers, but – in the spirit of the “How to Lie With Statistics” classic – serves as a manual on how to spot the personal finance “lies” out there!
And there’s a lot of material! Probably enough for at least one more followup post, so for today’s post, I look at just four different way of how quantitative financial issues are frequently fudged in the personal finance world. And a side note about the slightly attention-grabbing title I used here: Well, I put the word “Lie” in quotation marks to show to the faint-hearted that this is a bit tongue-in-cheek. I could have written, “fudge the numbers” or “Enron-accounting” or “How we delude ourselves in personal finance,” or something like that. Also, Hanlon’s Razor (“don’t attribute to malice what can be explained by incompetence”) comes to mind here, but I’m not sure if those faint-hearted folks feel that incompetence is a significantly more benign explanation than malice.
So, let’s look at some of my favorite examples of how people lie to themselves (and others) in the realm of personal finance…
Update 8/14/2019: The 10/2 spread inverted now, very slightly. Am I worried now? Certainly more worried than in April when I wrote this piece. The ISM-PMI index is around 51 – that’s also weaker but not weak enough to worry (everything above 50 is still called expansionary). Unemployment claims are still very low, which is a good sign. So, this is still “only” a mixed bag. Consistent with a false alarm a la 1998. But the probability of worse things to come has certainly gone up!
Well, there you have it: The Yield Curve inverted last month. Finally! Starting on March 22 and throughout much of last week, short-term interest rates (e.g., the 3 months bills) yielded slightly more than the bond market bellwether, the 10-year Treasury bond.
People in finance and economics view this with some concern because history has told us that an inverted yield curve is a pretty reliable recession indicator. And I made this point in my post in February 2018: The yield curve shape, especially the slope between longer-term yields (10 years) and the short end (e.g., 2-year yields) is one of my three favorite macro indicators:
Also notice that I usually look at the 10-year vs. 2-year yield rather than 3-month spread and that made a bit of a difference recently, more on a little bit that later. But in any case, since I went on the record about the importance of the yield curve and now got several reader requests to comment on this issue, here’s an update: in a nutshell, I’m not yet worried and here are eight reasons why…
Every six to seven weeks, we go through a tense week in the stock market. A bunch of very smart central bankers meet in Washington D.C. to decide on the path of U.S. monetary policy. Just like this week! U.S. monetary policy is determined by an elite group of Federal Reserve officials; the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC). It has 8 scheduled meetings per year and the schedule is pre-announced for everyone to see. And the meetings are scary for the stock market. If by scary you mean scary profitable!Continue reading “The scariest week for the stock market is also scary profitable!”→