Strategy and Business reports today on a new study by Itzhak Ben-David, John R. Graham and Campbell R. Harvey. They examined the accuracy of predictions by chief financial officers (CFOs). They examined over 13,000 surveys of chief financial officers in 2011. What did they find? "Instead of hitting the right range 80 percent of the time, the CFOs were correct in only about 36 percent of the cases when predicting the market’s point total a year out, the authors found. Even during the least volatile periods in the sample, CFOs had only a 59 percent success rate."
Psychologists, of course, have long known that human beings are subject to an overconfidence bias. Interestingly, this study shows that the overconfidence extends to projections about company performance as well. According to Strategy and Business, "CFOs who erred on market forecasts also tended to provide unrealistic estimates of returns on investment for their firm’s projects. These hubristic CFOs failed to anticipate volatility and risks, even when they could look to benchmarks like their firm’s return on invested capital as a basis for their predictions."
What I do take away from this study? In many companies, the senior management team looks to the CFO to be the "voice of reason" or the "force for restraint" in the face of ambitious executives who want to invest, grow, and expand. This study shows that many CFOs may not be effective forces of reason and restraint. Instead, their overconfidence may add fuel to the fire when it comes to flawed strategies. Far from being the cynic or the ultra-conservative person watching the pennies closely, some CFOs may dramatically underestimate the risks associated with certain investments. Moreover, they may support rosy projections for the future.