Why Past Performance is Fast Becoming Worth Ignoring

by Daniel Wagner Managing Director of Risk Cooperative and co-author of the book “Global Risk Agility and Decision Making”. 01.04.2017

How many times in the recent past have pollsters, stock pickers, and political prognosticators been wrong – even spectacularly wrong – in their predictions, having relied upon history and past performance to attempt to predict the future? The short answer is, all the time. A decade or two ago one might have been at least somewhat justified in presuming that what has happened in the past will give us a good idea of what may happen in the future, but that has clearly changed in the era of paradigm shifts and cyber-attacks. Simply put, historical performance by itself can no longer serve as a guidepost to the future.

One need look no further than the outcome of the US presidential election, the Brexit vote or the Colombian peace referendum to see how spectacularly the pollsters and bookies got it wrong. Very few pundits predicted that Trump would win (though I was one of them), with those who missed it having relied too much on what ‘used’ to determine voter sentiment. While UK voters were broadly expected to reject Brexit, and Colombian voters — longing for peace after a half century of war — were naturally expected to embrace the originally signed peace agreement with the FARC, they ended up doing exactly the opposite. Is that the result of outdated polling methods, a failure to truly understand the pulse and intention of voters, missing the boat completely, or some combination of these variables? Have voters around the world become so fickle and the rise of populism so unpredictable that accurately predicting election outcomes is no longer possible?

Something similar may be said about historical U.S. economic performance, which would suggest that the U.S. has been due for a recession for some time. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, which has tracked recessions on a monthly basis since 1854, between 1854 to 1919, there were 16 economic cycles, the average recession lasted 22 months, and the average economic expansion was 27 months. From 1919 to 1945, there were 6 cycles, recessions lasted an average of 18 months and expansions for 35 months. The period from 1945 to 2001 saw 10 cycles, recessions lasted an average 10 months, and expansions an average of 57 months -- so recessions got shorter and expansion periods longer over time.

Since the third quarter of 2009, the U.S. economy has expanded every quarter but one (in 2014) and is poised to continue the trend through at least 2017. Given that the U.S. economy is once again the de facto engine of the global economy (given China’s slowdown), far outpacing Europe and most other developed economies, there would appear to be little reason to believe that there are two consecutive quarters of negative growth or real GDP in the near-term future (which would constitute the beginning of a recession). On this basis, current U.S. economic performance is blowing statistics for the past 170 years out of the water, with 80+ months of post-recession growth. This is evidence that technology, innovation, creativity and entrepreneurialism, which are so prevalent in the U.S. economy, are translating into extended economic gains that literally swim against the tide of history.

That said, the change in global economic dynamics, with a gradual transition away from developed country domination of the global economy in favor of emerging economies, has had a profound impact on economic statistics. Trade flows have shifted away from a north/north and north/south orientation toward a south/north and south/south orientation. Outward investment flows from China are starting to tip the scales. And the tremendous global reams of data and information are just screaming to be valued on corporate balance sheets. Who knows what impact that will have on corporate assets valuations and profit.

As these examples illustrate, there is great danger in presuming that what has happened in the past is necessarily any indication of what will happen in the future. This has as much to do with globalization as it does with the free flow of information and instant communication and the voice of voters who were previously either shut out or not heard (for whatever reason) having become integrated into the political process. It also has to do with the need to integrate previously ignored or unforeseen factors into the equation, and discarding the outdated and increasingly mistaken view that the way it was done in the past is the way it will be done in the future, simply because “it has always been done that way”.

To those political pundits who continue to proclaim that they know the outcome of the next election anywhere in the world, those stock market prognosticators who swear to their brethren that they know the future movement of stocks or the market, and those global leaders who honestly believe that they are in tune with the pulse of their people - they are probably all wrong. Historical performance is no longer a reliable guide to the future. The sooner we all admit that, the better off we will all be.


Daniel Wagner is Managing Director of Risk Cooperative and co-author of the book “Global Risk Agility and Decision Making”. He can be reached at: or 1-203-570-1005.

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