Contrarian investing means to invest against the crowd, and to be skeptical of general market sentiment.
It’s an investing strategy that rewards patience, confidence, and rationality with high returns, and is the strategy that most of history’s world-class investors applied to earn their outsized gains.
It goes against human nature to stand out, to zig when others zag, and to be in the minority for your beliefs and choices. But that’s why contrarian investing is so profitable- if it were easy, everyone would be doing it.
Fortunately though, using this strategy successfully is more about discipline than it is about raw intelligence. If you’re looking for the best investments in 2021, then search where other people aren’t.
This article includes:
- An overview of how to effectively invest with a contrarian strategy
- Investing tactics to increase your returns and reduce your risk
- Specific undervalued investment ideas for 2021
How the Crowd Invests
Dalbar Incorporated performs an annual study called Quantitative Analysis of Investor Behavior, where they compare the investment returns of mutual funds and individual investors in those funds.
Charted here by JP Morgan, the average investor vastly underperforms just about every investment class:
Chart Source: JP Morgan Guide to the Markets, citing Dalbar Inc
The reason for this huge difference is that investors consistently took money out of funds that have recently underperformed, and put it into funds that have recently performed very well.
It’s the exact opposite of contrarian investing- they’re following success that has already occurred rather than identifying success that will likely happen in the future. They’re moving away from underperforming sectors to ones that have already gone up in price, so they’re constantly investing in market tops and removing money from market bottoms.
A consistent mistake of that magnitude is literally the difference between a comfortable retirement and a sparse one.
And people do the same thing for individual stocks and other funds. They statistically move to cash after their portfolio has lost value in a market crash, which means not only do they lose value in the crash itself, but then also miss out on the recovery.
Contrarian Investing 101
To be contrarian in this context means that when most people are euphoric about stocks, you’re becoming cautious for rational, mathematical reasons.
And when most people are afraid due to recently losing money in a downturn, you’re becoming optimistic because you see how undervalued many businesses are.
Most of history’s incredibly successful stock investors- the ones that went on to manage billions of dollars- were value investors, which by extension means they were contrarian. They saw value where others did not, and they avoided expensive companies that everyone else was enamored with.
I will tell you how to become rich. Close the doors. Be greedy when others are fearful, and fearful when others are greedy.
-Warren Buffett, Multi-Billionaire CEO of Berkshire Hathaway
Value investing is at its core the marriage of a contrarian streak and a calculator.
-Seth Klarman, Billionaire Hedge Fund Manager
Value investing is one of the best ways to step apart from the crowd and to protect oneself from the unpredictable behavior of the securities markets.
-Irving Kahn, Chairman of Kahn Brothers Group, Inc.
Buy value, not market trends or the economic outlook.
-Sir John Templeton, Billionaire Investor and Philanthropist
I am always prepared to do the right thing regardless of what other people think.
-Bill Ackman, Billionaire Activist Investor
Warren Buffet is the most well-known on the list, as he has made a six-decade career out of buying boring but highly profitable companies at cheap or reasonable prices. He bought a struggling newspaper company, a chewing gum company, a bunch of banks, and a hundred other companies like that.
While everyone was loading up on overvalued tech stocks in the late 90’s, for example, he skipped that and bought 130 million ounces of silver instead, which was at its historical low point. When the financial sector collapsed in 2008, he bailed some of them out, structuring very profitable deals for himself should they recover.
John Templeton started his fortune by buying every stock that was trading for under a dollar in the American markets in 1938 (of which there were only about a hundred), when the world was becoming a very dark place under Hitler and Hirohito. This resulted in him quadrupling his money in a few years.
Seth Klarman generated better than 16% annualized returns for over three decades so far, by analyzing the liquidation value of companies, and buying struggling companies at such low prices that his risk is kept at low levels.
Irving Kahn doubled his money from the 1929 market crash. He recognized the bubble, shorted it, and made a killing, and went on to become the oldest active investor in the world until his death in 2015 at 109 years of age.
Bill Ackman is known for his high-profile short positions and activist investing. In the early 2000’s, for example, he began noticing the growing problem with credit default swaps and mortgage-backed securities, so he shorted MBIA, a major insurer of mortgage-backed securities. For several years, his investment didn’t pay off, until 2008 when the company’s value utterly collapsed and he walked away a much richer man.
The strategy of dispassionately looking for value generally places you on the wrong side of the majority, which is a good thing.
A Contrarian Example
To start, figure out the key sectors that you have knowledge and experience in.
Let’s use these as an example:
Now suppose this year, my assets are allocated equally to those six categories. I have a couple mature tech companies (one software, one semiconductor), a couple financials (one regional bank, one insurer), two industrials (one railroad, and one automation company), a bit of a gold ETF, two MLPs (a midstream pipeline, and a natural gas pipeline), and a couple REITs (a healthcare REIT and a commercial REIT).
And then, over the course of the year, my industrials and tech companies go up 35% and 29% respectively, and I use discounted cash flow analysis or another valuation method and conclude that those sectors are overvalued.
At the same time, there’s a sell-off in the REIT sector, so my REITs go down. And the price of oil and gas falls, and so the energy sector goes down. But even some pipeline companies that had little exposure to energy prices were pushed down to undervalued levels also, which to me means opportunity.
So, here’s what I would do:
I would remove some or all the capital from the overvalued sectors (which everyone else is excited about and the market is driving the share prices up), and reallocate it towards increasing my positions in REITs and MLPs (which people are largely avoiding and driving the price down, in this example).
And it’s important to note, you don’t just move against the market intuitively. If you move assets to REITs, it’s because you conclude quantitatively that they’re becoming undervalued, that their combination of dividend yield and growth is becoming attractive at the current valuation, that their fundamental value is remaining intact while their market prices are decreasing. The same is true for MLPs and their distribution yields and distribution growth.
Now, suppose a year later that, MLPs recover to normal valuations, REITs and financials become overvalued, while technology underperforms and the price of silver falls to historic lows.
Here’s what I would do:
Again, I’d calculate the fair value of some technology companies, and buy the undervalued ones. And I’d take a position in a silver ETF.
The focus is always on moving capital away from overvalued sectors and towards undervalued sectors where the bargains are.
Applying This to Index Funds and ETFs
A contrarian investing strategy works not only for investing in individual companies, but also for index funds and ETFs.
The starting point for this is to keep an eye on the Shiller P/E ratio. It’s a cyclically-adjusted price-to-earnings ratio of the S&P 500:
It can be applied to other stock indices as well, like the FTSE 100 or the Nikkei 225.
When it becomes high, it generally means people are overpaying for stocks, and when it’s low, it means people are underpaying for stocks. Historically, every single time the ratio was high, it resulted in stock market returns for the S&P 500 being bad over the next 20-year period. And whenever the ratio was low, it resulted in stock market returns being good over the next 20-year period.
You can check other valuation measures as well, such as:
- Market capitalization as a percentage of GDP
- U.S. household net worth vs disposable income
- Average S&P 500 dividend yield
So, when everyone else is exuberantly driving valuations to highs, a contrarian investor would grow cautious and reduce equity exposure, or find undervalued stocks. Likewise, whenever markets fall to historic undervaluation, and people all think the stock market is a dangerous place, a contrarian investor would happily begin hunting for bargains, buying great companies or equity index funds at great prices.
The great part about this is that there are dozens of investable countries, and often when one market is expensive, another market somewhere is very cheap.
It’s a bit more complicated than that, so read more about index fund valuation approaches here.
In my free newsletter, I give investors updates on market valuation, and look at multiple metrics such as the CAPE ratio, market capitalization to GDP, average price to book value, average price to sales, average net worth to disposable income, average equity allocation of investors, and other broad valuation measurements.
A Conservative Approach
When people think of contrarian investing, they often think of high risk, high reward strategies, but that’s not necessarily the reality.
The Big Short, a movie about guys who shorted the housing market prior to the financial crash, shows an example of high-stakes all-or-nothing contrarian investing.
Michael Burry, MD, played by Christian Bale, shorted the housing market with his fund, and due to the structure of his shorting investment, was paying massive premiums to investment banks until he was correct, which nearly unraveled his fund as investors wanted to withdraw money, until he was proven right. Him and his investors made a ton of money when the housing market collapsed.
He’s the ultimate example of a contrarian- he has Asperger’s Syndrome, and came from an outsider’s perspective (as a physician rather than a financial professional), and so he simply looked at the numbers, and rationally invested his fund’s money based on them, even though almost everyone in the financial industry thought he was insane.
Another high-profile example is Bill Ackman, described earlier. He is known for activist investing and high-profile shorts. He’ll take a short position on a company he considers fraudulent, subjecting his fund to interest payments until that company goes down one way or another, and the whole time he’ll be public about it and subject to criticism and have other investors try to oppose him and prop up those companies. It’s hardcore, and sometimes his portfolio value is cut in half, while other times it goes up dramatically.
But you don’t have to be like that to be a contrarian investor. You can do it more gently, more gradually, and more simply, if you stick to these four rules:
1) Don’t short
Leave short positions to Wall Street. When you’re wrong on short positions, you can lose money fast. Rather than buying healthy companies, shorts involve betting against broken companies. Most hedge funds that use shorts underperform the S&P 500 anyway.
2) Don’t use margin, or use it sparingly
Keep your portfolio debt-free. That takes the pressure off, and allows you to ride out long market downturns.
If you want to use margin, use it only when there is an incredible investment opportunity, and keep your leverage ratio low.
3) Stick to companies that have economic moats
When a company has a moat, it means it has some durable competitive advantage against competitors.
Examples include economies of scale, brand strength, network effects, cost advantages, real estate in prime locations that can’t be reproduced, regulated monopolies, portfolios of patents, and so forth.
Avoid the temptation of investing in companies that are fragile; they may give you tremendous growth but they could also cost you everything. Stick to companies that have multiple lines of defense against competitors, and so even if that company does eventually fail, it happens gradually rather than quickly.
Read more on this topic here.
4) Avoid companies with high debt
Sometimes, an otherwise good, wide-moat company has a low valuation because it has too much debt. This can result in a good value situation, where a contrarian investor realizes that the company is undervalued, and that although it’s risky to invest, the probability is in his or her favor.
If you’re taking a more conservative approach, though, avoid high-debt companies. Pretty much the only thing that can sink a wide-moat company quickly is mismanaged debt.
5) Diversify appropriately
Whether you use index ETFs or buy individual stocks, having your portfolio allocated to several different sectors, companies, countries, and asset classes vastly reduces the probability of losing a major amount of capital in a short time period.
Selling cash-secured put options with the intention to buy a stock if it dips is inherently a contrarian investing strategy, and is a smart way to invest.
You’re getting paid to insure the losses of others; to buy precisely when things go down. Yet ironically, by doing so, you give yourself downside protection compared to buying equities at current market prices. By insuring the risks of others, you’re also partially protecting your own portfolio from risk.
Suppose the shares of a great company are trading at $52.30/share, and you think it’s a decent value at current prices. To buy the shares at an even lower price and to give yourself downside protection, instead of buying it now at today’s price, you can sell a put option at a strike price of $50 that expires in 6 months, and get paid an option premium (let’s say $4/share in this example), to take on the obligation of buying the shares at $50 if the option buyer wants to assign them to you before the expiration date of the put option.
If the stock remains above $50, you’ll keep your $4, and can sell another option.
If the stock dips, you’ll buy at an effective cost basis of just $46 (based on paying $50/share and receiving the $4 per share in premiums), which is considerably below today’s example market price of $52.30.
Similarly, selling covered calls with the intention to sell your shares if they spike in price is contrarian as well.
In that case, you’re getting paid to take on the obligation to sell shares you already own at a certain price.
For example, if you bought some shares of a solid company at $18.63/share, and over the last five years the shares are now at $33.15, you might conclude that they are overvalued based on a broad set of metrics. The stock price rose faster than the inherent value of the company.
In that case, you could sell a covered call at a strike price of $35/share that expires in 3 months, and receive a call option premium of $1/share. If the shares remain below $35, you’ll keep them and your $1 premium (which translates into about 3% per quarter in premium income yield), along with all dividends paid during that quarter if there are any.
If the shares go above $35, you’ll keep any paid dividends and the option premium, and sell at $35/share. This will free up your capital from this overvalued company, and allow you to reallocate it towards an undervalued company.
Contrarian Investments for 2021
As I wrote about in my guide to stock investing, valuation metrics are a good predictor of long-term returns but not short-term returns.
For example, the forward price-to-earnings ratio of the market is quite predictive of 5-year returns, but 1-year returns are basically random:
Source: J.P. Morgan Guide to the Markets
So, no value or contrarian investor can tell you what will outperform in any given year. What they can do, however, is point out what’s cheap right now. This gives a strong indication of what is likely to do well over the next 5+ years. What will be the best investments of 2021?
And the only advantage that small investors have over Wall Street is that the vast majority of market participants are focused on the short-term, while you can focus on the long term.
Investment Idea #1: Emerging Markets
For starters, here’s a map of the cyclically-adjusted price-to-earnings ratio for developed and emerging markets around the world, courtesy of Star Capital.
Red is expensive, blue is cheap:
No individual valuation metric is perfect, but the United States stock market is expensive by every metric.
The U.S. price-to-earnings ratio is historically high, its price-to-book ratio is historically high, its CAPE is historically high, and its dividend yield is historically low. We’re almost 10 years into the second longest economic expansion in U.S. history.
In addition, the U.S. has outperformed most other markets over the last ten years. It’s not a contrarian environment.
If the dollar enters a significant down move, as it might, then emerging markets could be one of the best beneficiaries.
The dollar index broke below its 50-month moving average in 2020, and the moving average is starting to point slightly down. If this continues, it could result in the third major dollar decline within the past 50 years of the current global monetary system:
Chart Source: StockCharts.com
I believe emerging markets will do well over the next 5-10 years primarily due to mean-reversion and a weaker U.S. dollar. Most of them are trading at low valuations with higher growth potential than developed markets.
Investment Idea #2: U.S. Undervalued Sectors 2021
If you don’t want to go abroad, there are some sectors that have become downtrodden here in the United States while the rest of the market has risen.
Broadly speaking, we’ve been in a long period where growth stocks have outpaced value stocks worldwide, including in the United States:
Chart Source: Vanguard
In particular, commodities and commodity producers, are at historic lows compared to the S&P 500. Opportunities like this only come around every couple decades:
Chart Source: Incrementum
While technology stocks and low-volatility stocks like consumer staples and utilities have done very well lately and are at above average valuations, there are plenty of cheap stocks in beaten-down sectors trading at below average valuations. Commodity producers, retailers, consumer discretionary companies, industrials, midstream companies, asset managers, and so forth are generally beaten down.
Many of them have beaten down stock prices for good reasons, because they have one or more existential problems, but most investors these days just trade with ETFs, which means they throw out whole sectors or industries at a time rather than picking through individual stocks. Therefore, within the undervalued sectors of 2021, there are diamonds in the rough; high-quality companies that have been thrown out with undeperforming peers in difficult sectors.
I recently did a presentation for the Money Show and included three example F.A.S.T. Graphs of “overvalued”, “fairly-valued” and “undervalued” stocks to show how different the market looks depending on where you look.
For F.A.S.T. Graphs, the black line is the stock price, while the blue and orange lines represent historically normal valuations based on current and projected earnings. So, when the black line totally decouples from the blue and orange lines to the upside or downside, it often represents overvaluation or undervaluation.
Apple’s (AAPL) stock price went parabolic this year even as fundamentals remained normal (likely too hot):
Amgen’s (AMGN) stock price has kept up with fundamentals to a rational degree (likely just right):
Enterprise Products Partners’ (EPD) unit price collapsed this year despite fundamentals remaining flattish (likely too cold):
There are early signs of a potential rotation and mean reversion in this trend, so investors should be mindful of this. I think 2021 could easily be a story of major sector rotation, although nothing is for certain and there could be fiscal/political curveballs to deal with along the way. I like owning a diverse basket of stocks such as AMGN and EPD in this example, and am more cautious about stocks like AAPL at this level.
My premium research service looks for exactly those types of investments worldwide for hands-on investors.
For some free ideas, check out my stock pick articles:
To be a contrarian investor, you gradually move money from overvalued sectors to undervalued sectors.
You can do this by buying and selling stocks normally, or if volatility is high enough, you can use a more elegant approach of selling cash-secured puts to enter positions at great prices, selling covered calls to exit positions at overvalued prices, and earn extra investment income along the way.
And to keep things safe, avoid short positions, limit the use of margin, avoid high debt companies, and stick to investing in companies with durable competitive advantages.
Broad market valuation metrics, like the Shiller PE ratio, can give you a rough idea of how overvalued a market is compared to 150 years of historical data.
This data from various valuation metrics can be used for determining what portion of your portfolio to allocate to equities in that market and which international markets to prioritize, whether you’re an individual stock picker or an index investor.
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