How to Be a Contrarian Investor

Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it’s time to pause and reflect.”
– Mark Twain

Contrarian investors believe that following the crowd leads to losses and missed opportunities. When the crowd reacts to news or speculation about a stock or the market, the price can rise of fall so far, that has mis-priced the value of the company or the market.

For example, a company finds it must recall a product due to a design or manufacturing problem. The recall causes widespread pessimism about the company and drives the price of the stock to new lows. The problem is real though the perception of the value of the stock is misplaced. Contrarian investors recognize these situations as opportunities. Once the selling is over and the company puts in place the necessary actions to correct the problem, the price recovers. Any investors who bought shares when the problem was at its worst, realize above average gains.

Similarly, widespread optimism often results in high valuations that cannot be justified by fundamentals. Eventually, the market recognizes the situation and the price falls. Again, contrarian investors try to avoid these highly hyped stocks, as the risk of a fall is greater than the reward of it climbing higher.

The contrarian investor looks to be part of the “smart money,” those few investors who recognize that crowd behavior tends to be wrong often. When the smart money players recognize this situation, they seek to benefit from the extreme sentiment expressed by the crowd. Bad news often overstates the risk and prospects of a company. Many investors will sell these shares in a panic to avoid owning the company’s shares. Contrarian investors identify and buy distressed stocks, selling them when the company recovers, leading to market beating returns.

In similar fashion, overly optimistic investors can drive up the price of a stock or the market to valuations that do not make economic sense. Eventually, these high expectations do not pan out and the price plunges. Contrarian investors are careful to exit or avoid these exaggerated situations. By going against the crowd, that has an unfounded belief in direction of the market, contrarian investors prepare to go the other way and avoid the losses the masses experience.

Deciding when to enter a contrarian trade requires a certain amount of fortitude and confidence. In 1999 and early 2000, the dot-com boom was underway. Many investors believe that the internet ass changing the nature of business. As a result, many of the fundamental and technical measures of performance were no longer valid. Along the way, many people bought into the market driving up the net capital inflows to all time highs. Much of this new money came from retail or non-professional investors driving up the NASDAQ. Once the inflow of new money tapered off, there was nothing left to support the extremely overvalued market. The market crashed.

Those who recognized that the market was overvalued were able to exit their positions. A few contrarian investors did not believe the hype. While many of them missed the run up, they also avoided the plunge. A few others maintained their trading discipline keeping their down side protection in place. When the market turned against them, they were able to exit their positions after enjoying the incredible run up.
The April 28, 2008 issue of Barron’s had an article titled “Back in the Pool.” They surveyed a number of professional investors to get an idea of their thoughts on the market. At the time the market had been in a rally that began in 2003 and was reaching what some thought were over heated conditions. Here are the results of the survey:

1) Describe your investment outlook through December 2008:

• Very Bullish: 7%
• Bullish: 43%
• Neutral: 38%
• Bearish: 12%
• Very Bearish: 0%

2) Is the U.S. stock market overvalued, undervalued, or fairly valued at current levels?

• Overvalued: 10%
• Undervalued: 55%
• Fairly valued: 35%

Essentially, there was a strong crowd mentality as the vast majority viewed the market favorably. By the end of 2008, the S&P 500 had fallen from a high in the 1400 area to 735 area. Those that stayed long saw their portfolios fall by more than 40%.

How to be a Contrarian

A contrarian investor does not always go against the crowd. Rather they look for situations when the market, a sector or a stock is significantly mis-priced. Along the way, they maintain their trading discipline keeping down side protection in place should the market change direction. Contrarians know they must not fight the prevailing trend. If the market is moving from the lower left to the upper right, they participate. When signs the trend is ending, they add more down side protection to their portfolios including reducing the size of their long positions.

Once the trend has turned and their trailing stops and protective puts have down their job, they look to find a new trend to follow. This can be a downtrend. They do not fight the trend. Rather they embrace it.

Contrarian investors look for situations when the market, sector, or stock becomes significantly overvalued or undervalued. These situations offer good entry or exit opportunities to capture additional profits. When an opportunity presents itself, contrarian investors complete their thorough evaluation before the make a commitment. Mis-priced opportunities arrive when people let their emotions take control over logic and analysis.