Beware The Rock Star Business Guru
When a slick and smiling Jeff Rubin appeared in a Harry Rosen ad earlier this year, it was clear that the former CIBC World Markets chief economist has become more than a practitioner of the dismal science. He is a brand. A rock star. An international guru with a best-selling book and a long list of corporations eager to pay very large amounts of money to hear him forecast the future.
Unfortunately, the future the guru sees isn't pretty.
"What will 2011 bring?" he wrote on his blog. "Triple-digit oil prices." Unless you happen to have an oil well in your backyard, that's bad news. "Our last encounter with those prices was brief but decisive," Rubin wrote. It was in 2008. The shock to the economy was so severe it caused the global recession.
So should we batten down the hatches in 2011? I don't know. Unlike Jeff Rubin, I claim no powers of prognostication. I did, however, write a book about why expert predictions routinely fail, how experts delude themselves about their failures, and why people are drawn to the sort of expert who is most likely to be wrong. So I know something about the subject.
And what I know is that Jeff Rubin is an almost eerily perfect example of the sort of expert people should not listen to - but do anyway.
The foundation of Rubin's fame is a correct call he made a decade ago. At the time, oil prices were low and stable. Most experts were sure they would stay that way.
But Rubin became convinced the world was approaching "peak oil" - the point at which oil production would cease to grow - and the price of oil would soar.
As Rubin predicted, oil prices started to climb in 2003. Up and up they went, to previously unimaginable highs. In the first half of 2008, oil topped $140 a barrel. Rubin and the few others who called the surge became media darlings.
But, in the summer of 2008, the price started to slide. In September came the financial meltdown. The global economy shuddered and the price of oil collapsed. By the end of the year, it was barely above $30 a barrel.
By the next spring, oil bounced back to the $70 or $80 range. Rubin left CIBC and published Why Your World Is About To Get A Whole Lot Smaller, in which he claimed to have foreseen developments with uncanny accuracy.
Rubin argues that soaring oil prices drive economies into recession. Economies in recession demand less oil, so the price falls. When economies recover, so does oil demand. And price. That is what happened in 2008, he wrote, and it tells us what's going to happen in the future: When the recovery comes, oil prices will once again go up and up - until they collapse the economy again.
Why Your World Is About To Get A Whole Lot Smaller garnered heaps of media attention and became a huge best-seller. This year, an esteemed panel of judges awarded it the $20,000 National Business Book Award.
Rubin's argument is simple and compelling. It may even be right. But one thing is certain: Rubin omits some critical details.
"Don't think of today's prices as a spike," he told the Toronto Star in January, 2008, as the price was shooting upward. "Don't think of them as a temporary aberration. Think of them as the beginning of a new era."
In April 2008, Rubin released a CIBC report titled "The Age of Scarcity." "Despite the recent record jump in oil prices, the outlook suggests that oil prices will continue to rise steadily over the next five years, almost doubling from current levels," he wrote. Oil would be $130 a barrel in 2009; $150 in 2010; $190 in 2011; and a terrifying $225 in 2012.
The report says nothing about oil prices sinking the economy. On the contrary, it says the both the Canadian and American economies would grow steadily in the second half of 2008 and throughout 2009. The Toronto Stock Exchange would soar to near-record levels in 2008 and hit 16,200 in 2009.
In June, 2008, with oil prices rising even faster than Rubin expected, he revised his call. Oil would top $200 by 2010, he forecast.
In the summer of 2008, with oil prices falling, Rubin repeatedly assured reporters this was a minor correction of no significance. In July, he forecast rising oil prices would push up the U.S. inflation rate to six per cent in the second half of 2008. On Aug. 30, 2008 - weeks away from the crash - Rubin warned hurricanes could take out infrastructure in the Gulf of Mexico and cause oil prices to soar.
In November 2008, Rubin told a reporter high oil prices killed the economy. Of course, this was well after the crash of the financial system, the global economy, and the price of oil. I can find no record of his saying this beforehand.
In short, Rubin's forecasts were utterly wrong. The story he has told since then about oil prices yo-yoing the economy is - whether correct or not - an explanation he came up with only after the fact.
Not that any of this has humbled Rubin. Throughout 2009 and 2010, he forecast the return of triple-digit oil prices. It didn't happen. But these flops, too, made no difference to Rubin's confidence. He is as sure of himself as ever. And just as persuasive. How could he not be? He is supremely confident. He has a simple analytical story. And he is a superb communicator, in print and in person.
This is the stuff that satisfies the psychology of the audience. It is the stuff of which gurus are made.
Unfortunately, seminal research by University of California psychologist Philip Tetlock shows it is precisely this sort of expert whose predictions are most likely to fail. This explains Tetlock's startling discovery of an inverse correlation between fame and accuracy: In general, the more famous an expert is, the less accurate his predictions are.