On Contrarianism

With markets, it doesn’t matter what people say.  What matters is what they rely upon.

Face it, people have opinions, and when asked only the most cautious or prudent won’t give an answer.  Talk is cheap.

But money talks.  What will people or institutions risk some of their financial well-being in order to make money?

Turning points are exceptionally difficult to call with time precision.  Anyone can say that a trend is going to break for a long while before it breaks; the trick is to be able to make the change within a short distance of the inflection point.  I’ve done it a few times, but I have little confidence in whether I can do it regularly.

Examples:

Now part of this is that if you predict enough things, you will have some right ones to point to.  I am obviously picking and choosing here, but when I made these predictions, there was a method to my madness.  I am not like Cramer, who makes predictions every day.  I wait for points where markets are out of kilter, and then I act, and sometimes predict.

Calling turning points is very difficult.  I want to offer two bits of advice to those to try to do so.

1) Look for situations where the yield is unsustainable on the high side or on the low side.

Examples:

  • Earnings yield too low during the tech bubble.  Also workers were relying on stock to rise, because they were getting much of their pay through options.
  • Net yield on much residential investment real estate negative in 2005-7, without even factoring in maintenance costs.  When someone is relying on price appreciation in order to break even something is wrong.
  • Toward the end of the commercial real estate bubble, the same was true.  Equity investors began to rely on price appreciation in order to break even.
  • When spreads on high yield blew out, at its worst the market was assuming that half of all high yield issues would die, with low recoveries.  Even the Great Depression wasn’t that bad.  The same was true in a faint echo for BBB Corporates.
  • During the recent bottom in March 2009, high quality companies could be bought for less than their net worth and at earnings yields unseen since 1973-74.

2) Look for a qualitative change when you think we might be near a turning point.

  • Chatter changes at/near turning points.  Certainty gives way to uncertainty.  Uncertainty gives way to worry.  Worry gives way to panic.  In October 2005, Googlebots that I created tipped me off to the change in the residential real estate markets way ahead of most parties.
  • Inflection points tend to be times of stasis as far as economic variables go, but confusion in terms of chatter.  During the tech bubble in early 2000, the chatter became decidedly less certain.

Inflection points are times of change, and chatter should reflect that.

Coming back to contrarianism, ask yourself, “What are people relying on to be true, that may not be true?”  That is what it means to be a contrarian.  Mere disagreement means little.  Where have men placed their bets?  Betting against the consensus is what a contrarian does.

4 Comments

  • PaulinKansasCity says:

    Great post David. Have a great holiday weekend with your family

  • Note: what do many governments, corporations, etc., now realize that they relied upon that has now disappointed them? Two things: a perpetual increase in leverage, and that they could lever pensions off of investing in the stock market and other risky asset classes.

    This is still a problem, but the full ramifications have not come to pass yet. There is a theme for 2010.

  • Bob_in_MA says:

    The perpetual increase in leverage has been going on here for 30-40 years, the full ramifications for a reversal of the process would seem pretty bleak. But also hard to predict.

    Oh, well. I’ll go sit in front of the fire and read my Christmas presents…

  • Mike says:

    I like what you have to say and have been in on most of the turning points you listed. Late on a few and early on a few but there for the most part. Good blog, I like it. I clicked on the link and Cramer came up. This guy definitely had one too many market prediction!