Prophetic attorney wins the 'derby'

JOHN DORFMAN


My latest Derby of Economic Forecasting Talent, or DEFT, was the closest and highest-scoring in many years.

Retired attorney John Winn of Waldo, Florida, edged out two other competitors to take the crown for forecasting six economic variables in 2015.

Second place went to Ralph Ross, director of human resources for GE Power Conversion in Pittsburgh. Third by a whisker was Thomas Levendusky, a retired chemical engineer from Greensburg, Pennsylvania.

Contestants must guess the yearend level of six variables: growth in real U.S. gross domestic product, the change in the Consumer Price Index, the interest rate on 10-year Treasury notes, the price of a barrel of oil, retail sales in December and the unemployment rate.

The theoretical maximum score in the contest is 18 points, but no one ever comes close to that total. Sometimes four points are enough to win. Winn had 7.6 points, Ross 7 and Levendusky 6.85.

A contestant who comes closest to the actual figure for each variable gets three points. Second place is good for two points, third place for one point. Ties are prorated.

As usual when there is a drastic change in the economy, no one saw it coming. The dramatic change in 2015 was the continued fall in oil prices.

When the year began, a barrel of West Texas Intermediate oil cost $53.45, down from about $100 in mid-2014. Not a single contestant predicted that oil would continue to fall. But fall it did, to $37.13.

Winn, 70, had a civil law practice in Gainesville, Florida. He earned his first-place finish with a dead-on guess about GDP growth and good approximations on three of the other variables.

For 2016, Winn believes that "things will continue to be kind of slow." He believes that government imposes too many regulations and taxes, both of which he says dampen economic activity.

The effect of the big decline in oil prices since mid-2014 "depends on whose ox is being gored," Winn said. "If you're not in the oil business, you'd think it would benefit you."

Ross took second place by nailing the figure for retail sales almost precisely and placing in two other categories.

He, too, looks for "slow, anemic growth," and cites government regulations as a factor. Also noting a slowing of China's economy and the 4-4 political deadlock on the Supreme Court, he said, "We're running out of gas."

Ross fears that the oil-price drop will be bad for the economy because falling commodity prices may contribute to a general climate of deflation.

Levendusky earned the bronze medal by scoring at least fractional points in five of the six categories. To the best of my recollection, no one has ever previously accomplished that.

Over the 14 years that I've run this contest (1999 through 2006, and 2010 through the present), both financial professionals and amateurs have won.

Past winners have included a retired surgeon, a Realtor, a mathematics professor and a professor of information systems. Most winners have been in some aspect of finance, but no economist has ever won, so far.

Feel free to try your luck. The rules are simple.

To enter, email me your answers to the six questions below. Or mail your entry to John Dorfman, Dorfman Value Investments, 379 Elliot St., Suite 100H, Newton Upper Falls, MA 02464.

Entries must be sent by midnight on March 11.

Include your name, address, occupation and phone number (so I can interview you if you win). You are not required to give the reasons behind your estimates, but I enjoy it if you do.

Here are the six questions:

The U.S. economy, measured by gross domestic product, grew 2.4 percent last year in real (inflation-adjusted) terms. How much will it grow in 2016?

Inflation, measured by the Consumer Price Index, was only 0.7 percent in 2015. How much will it be this year?

The interest rate on 10-year government bonds stood at 2.27 percent when 2014 ended. What will that rate be on Dec. 31, 2016?

A barrel of oil (West Texas Intermediate) fetched $37.13 on Dec. 31, 2015. When this year ends, what will the oil price be?

Retailers racked up $449.11 billion in sales in December 2015 (seasonally adjusted). How much will retail sales be in December 2016?

Unemployment fell in 2015, to 5 percent from 5.6 percent. Where will the unemployment rate stand at the end of this year?

The winner of the DEFT contest will receive a trophy.

John Dorfman is chairman of Dorfman Value Investments in Boston and a syndicated columnist. He can be reached at jdorfman@dorfmanvalue.com.

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