And even if a forecast is off-base, there are few repercussions because they are almost always quickly forgotten. “The reason that people do these games is because no one’s really tracking accuracy,” said Mr. Lamont, who now works at DKR Capital, a hedge fund in Greenwich, Conn. “No one is carefully, prudently giving more business to the guy who is 2 percent more accurate than the next guy.”
Some say this is a system that propagates ignorance and poor advice.
“Anyone that invests 10 cents on the basis of someone’s forecast of the Dow is desirous of losing a good portion of their 10 cents,” said William A. Fleckenstein, president of Fleckenstein Capital, a money management firm in Issaquah, Wash. “It is almost the height of arrogance to say this is where the Dow is going to trade.”
“These types of forecasts are wildly off-base,” Mr. Fleckenstein said. “What they’re always about is extrapolation. People are always extrapolating recent trends. And you don’t know how far the trend is going to really run.”
But when markets are as jittery as they are now and 10-word headlines on a Bloomberg terminal can move indexes up or down hundreds of points, investors may not pause long enough to consider the details.
More than a few eyebrows were raised last week when news flew across trading desks that Peter Boockvar, who tracks equities at Miller Tabak, was predicting the Dow would crater to 5,000 by next year, a 40 percent decline from the current level.
Among the shocked: Mr. Boockvar himself. “It was mischaracterized!” he said in a telephone interview on Friday, adding that he had no idea if the Dow would sink to 5,000.
“Based on my calculations, I said we can go from 5,000 to 7,000,” he said. “No one’s smart enough to answer the question as to where we’ll be a year from now. I think it’s silly to pick a number, that’s why I picked a wide range.”
It had been an exasperating 24 hours for Mr. Boockvar. “I had to deal with it half my day yesterday,” he said.
Some financial pundits, however, are all too happy to broadcast their predictions to the public, no matter how apocalyptic.
Peter Schiff, the president of Euro Pacific Capital in Darien, Conn., and a prominent financial Cassandra, has seen some of his most dire forecasts confirmed amid this year’s turmoil. On Friday, he predicted plenty more pain to come.
“We could decline about 90 percent from where we are today,” he said.
Mr. Schiff unreels his depressing outlook with a confidence appropriate for a man whose book, “Crash Proof: How to Profit From the Coming Economic Collapse,” was published in February 2007.
“Our economy is a complete disaster. I think the recession — better to call it a depression — we are going to experience is going to collapse corporate earnings,” he said. “The end is a long way off.”
He declined to predict a specific end of the bear market, saying only that he expected the level of the Dow would eventually match the price of an ounce of gold.
“I don’t think the Dow would go all the way to 1,000. Could it be 4,000? That might be,” he said.
Still, forecasters who get too far ahead of themselves would do well to remember an instance of notoriously poor prognostication. One of the few times that a financial strategist has been widely taken to task came in 1999, when Kevin A. Hassett and James K. Glassman published “Dow 36,000: The New Strategy for Profiting From the Coming Rise in the Stock Market.”
The book, which arrived just months before the technology bubble burst and stocks plummeted to earth, was actually an argument that bonds and stocks should be considered as equally risky investments. But the title — cartoonish in hindsight and, in its authors’ defense, proposed by the publisher — has since become a popular punch line for jokes about irrational exuberance in turn-of-the-century Wall Street. (The Dow closed on Friday at 8,378.95).
Still, while the reputation of its authors may have taken a hit, “Dow 36,000” has not seemed to hurt their careers. Mr. Hassett, who did not respond to a reporter’s inquiry, works at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative research group in Washington, and serves as the senior economic adviser to the presidential campaign of Senator John McCain.
According to his spokesman, Mr. Glassman prefers not to comment on the financial markets now that he has started in his new position: under secretary of state for public diplomacy in the Bush administration. Apparently, there is life after Dow 36,000. The jury is still out on life after Dow 8,378.