Tag Archives: ETS

Time horizon in forecasting, and rules of thumb

I recently received an email about forecasting and rules of thumb. “Dans la profession […] se transmet une règle empirique qui voudrait que l’on prenne un historique du double de l’horizon de prévision : 20 ans de données pour une prévision à 10 ans, etc… Je souhaite savoir si cette règle n’aurait pas, par hasard, un fondement théorique quitte à ce que le rapport ne soit pas de 2 pour 1, mais de 3 pour 1 ou de 1 pour 1 par exemple.” To summarize briefly, the rule is to consider a 2-1 ratio for the period of observation vs. forecast horizon. And the interesting question is if there are justifications for such a rule…

At first, I remembered a rules of thumb, from the book by Box and Jenkins, which states that it is meaningless to look at autocorrelations when lags exceed the sample size over 6. So with 12 years of data, autocorrelations with a lag higher than two years are useless. But it is not what is mentioned here. So I looked at some dataset, and some standard time series models.

  • It depends on the series

It might obvious… but if it is the case, it means that it will be difficult to have a general rule of thumb. Consider e.g. the number of airline passengers,

X = AirPassengers
ETS = ets(X)

or some sales in a big store,

or car casualties in France, or the temperature in Nottingham Castle,

or the water level at Lack Hurron, or the flow of the Nile river,

or see also here for forecasting techniques in demography. Actually, in the case of life insurance, actuaries have to forecast future demography, i.e. try to assess death rates of those who currently purchase retirement contracts, who might be 20 years old. So they have to forecast death rate until 2100, say. One the one hand, it sounds difficult to make forecast over a century (it is already difficult for climate, I guess it is even more complex for human life). On the other hand, a 2-1 ratio means that we have to use data from 1800… Here again, it is difficult to justify that mortality in the 1850 could be interesting to say anything about mortality in 2050. So I guess it will be difficult to justify the use of general rules of thumb….

  • It depends on the model

Consider the following (simulated) series. Several models can be fitted. And the shape on the forecast (and the forecast error) will depend on the model considered. The benchmark can be the model without any dynamics, i.e. we assume that observations are i.i.d. Or more classically, assume that it is simple a white noise, i.e. an i.i.d centered process. Then the forecast is the following,

With that kind of assumption, we see that the 2-1 ratio is useless since we can get forecasts up to any horizon…. But that does not seem very robust. For instance, if we consider exponential smoothing techniques, we can obtain

Which is rather different. And with the 2-1 ratio, obviously, there is a lot of uncertainty at the end ! It would be even worst if we assume that we look at a random walk. Because actually a dozen models – at least – can be considered, from ARIMA, seasonal ARIMA, Holt Winters, Exponential Smoothing, etc…


So I do not see any theoretical justification of that rule of thumb. Obviously, the maximum horizon can not be extremely far away if the series is non-stationary, with a very irregular pattern, and with a lot of noise… So we’re back at the beginning. If anyone is willing to share his or her experience, comments are open.

Is it that stupid to make extremely long term forecast when studying mortality ?

I received recently a comment by FCA (here) who raised an important question, about forecast in dynamic mortality models. (S)he mentioned that from his(her) point of view, the econometric models I considered were “good to predict for the next, say, 3 or 4 years. Not for the next 50 years…”. Which was the message I tried to stress last year in a conference about retirement in France (here). But from a quantitativepoint of view, how inconsistent were forecasts made 35 years ago, or 60 years ago ?

Consider here the Lee Carter model, obtained on the periods 1816-1950 (in black below), 1816-1975 (in red) and 1816-2000 (in blue), unfortunately, it is difficult to compare http://freakonometrics.blog.free.fr/public/maths/viekt.png‘s since we have identifiability problems here. Nevertheless, we if consider affine transformation so that  http://freakonometrics.blog.free.fr/public/maths/viekt.png‘s are equal in 1900 and 1950 (say), we obtain

On that graph, we considered an ETS (AAN) forecast. If we do not consider the entire series for forecasting, but only observations following WWI (1945), we obtain

For sketches of the R code,

for(i in 1:length(A)){
for(j in 1:length(K1)){

Actually, it is not that bad…. even if it is only a qualitative intuition. Again, I am not a demographer, and my interest is more on actuarial science… so if we look at the estimation of annuities (still the same insurance contract, as here) for some insured of age 40 in 2000, we get the following graph (where forecasts http://freakonometrics.blog.free.fr/public/maths/viekt.png‘s were obtained on the complete series, i.e. from 1816 until the year we consider),

(here it means that in 1900, I had to forecast mortality for someone of age 40 in 2000… so we had to forecast mortality with a 150 year horizon). Obviously, even if we are able to forecast improvement of mortality rates, it is not enough since it looks like, each year, improvement are alway higher than what what expected. Note that if we run it twice (since there might be problem with initial values in the econometric procedure) we obtain something similar,

So, the output is consistent. And if we change the way we predict future values, e.g. on focusing only on the past 50 years, i.e.


we obtain the following graph for the annuity associated to an insurance contract sold in 2000,

so that relative changes compared with 1980 are (in %)

Hence, over a bit more than 25 years, we underestimated annuities of 25%. We if start to take into account possible investments, it is not so bad, I think….  don’t you think ?