contrarian investing

Hit ’em Where They Ain’t

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Investors can learn a lot from Willie Keeler, one of the smallest major league baseball players in history. Wee Willie stood 5’4” and weighed 140 pounds.

Playing from 1892 to 1910, Willie was a prolific hitter, with a batting average of .345 over that long career. He explained his success with words that have become part of baseball lore:

“Keep your eye on the ball, and hit ‘em where they ain’t.”

We believe it makes sense to strive to understand investment opportunities, researching companies, trends, and economic developments to try to gain an edge. This is what it means to “keep your eye on the ball.”

As contrarians, we seek to avoid stampedes. If the crowd is there, we probably want to be somewhere else. As Warren Buffett once said, “be greedy when others are fearful, and fearful when others are greedy.” Isn’t this the investment version of “hit ‘em where they ain’t?”

It would be interesting to know whether Wee Willie Keeler did any investing. Did his investing philosophy match his baseball hitting philosophy?

We cannot know the answer to that. But we do know, our investing philosophy matches up very well. “Keep your eye on the ball, and hit ‘em where they ain’t.”
Clients, if you would like to talk about his or anything else, please email us or call.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.

All investing involves risk including loss of principal. No strategy assures success or protects against loss.

Stocks Have No Memory

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Clients sometimes bring up their own history with a particular investment in
trying to assess it. We sometimes hear things like this:

• “It’s done nothing but go down since we bought it.”
• “This is the most boring stock ever! It just lays there.”
• “At what point do you give up on waiting for it to turn around?”

As investors, our challenge is to form an opinion about the future value of prospective investments. Broad economic trends, industry developments, and company evolution may go into the mix. Reading annual and quarterly reports, checking our research sources, and looking at pertinent news are part of our routine. We frequently have to do some arithmetic, too.

Notice something missing from our recipe? Investment price performance does not go into the stew. Track record is not a factor for us personally. If you believe in buying low, you sometimes buy things with terrible recent performance. Conversely, some of the best track records in history belong to bubbles at their peak.

We aren’t saying our approach is the right approach. There is a whole school of thought that says you should only invest in things that are already going up—trend followers. But our approach is our approach, and we are unlikely to change.

Market values depend on the consensus opinion of the rest of the world. As contrarians, we look for potential gaps between the consensus and how we believe the future may unfold. No guarantees, of course—but we aren’t going to base investment decisions on a consensus that may be flawed.

Your stocks do not know how much you paid for them, or when you purchased them. We look at companies, not stocks—and make decisions in line with what we see. Opinions change, the consensus shifts, and we wait. Sometimes we look out of step for a time, perhaps years. That’s part of being contrarian.

Clients, if you would like to talk about this or anything else, please email us or call.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.

 

Stock investing involves risk including loss of principal.

2019 Market Forecast

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It is that time of year. Prognosticators and pundits issue their forecasts for the year ahead. Wouldn’t it be nice to know what the future holds! Some forecasts are hedged, and don’t really say much. Our prediction is quite specific.

Many of those who have visited our offices know that we actually do have a crystal ball. It forecasts the direction of the stock market for the coming year. It does not say how far the market will go, but it always predicts the direction.

If you knew which way the stock market was going to go, could you make money investing?

Here’s the catch: our crystal ball has only been 74% accurate1. So perhaps the question should be, if you knew which way the stock market was going to go 74% of the time1, could you make money investing?

Without further ado, here is what my crystal ball says about the direction of the stock market for the year beginning January 1: it will go up.

Long-time observers will not be surprised. The crystal ball always says the market is going up. It has never predicted a down year. And checking back over the past hundred years, according to Standard & Poor’s, it has been right 74%1 of the time.

We don’t know how well its track record will hold up, but we believe this presents a favorable backdrop to buy bargains, avoid stampedes in the markets, and seek to own the orchard for the fruit crop. In other words, to keep on keeping on, following our plans and strategies.

It is tempting to include a discussion of the economy, the strengths we perceive, and the faint possibility of recession. We’ll leave that to people with more time on their hands. If your plans or planning will be evolving in the new year and require our attention, please call.

Notes and References

1. Online Data, Dr. Robert J. Shiller: http://www.econ.yale.edu/~shiller/data.htm. Accessed December 31st, 2018.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.

Investing involves risk including loss of principal. No strategy assures success or protects against loss.

Buy Low, Sell High

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If you watch a lot of sports journalism, sooner or later you will see someone deliver some variation on this nugget of wisdom: “If we want to win, we just have to score more points than the other team.”

In investing terms, the equivalent is “If we want to make money, we just have to buy low and sell high.” This is just math: if you sell something at a higher price than what you paid for it, you make a profit.

The “sell high” part is usually easy for most people to grasp. Sometimes someone in a hot rally may get wrapped up in watching their gains go up and up and forget to cash out before things inevitably come crashing back down. But generally taking profits is fun and comes naturally to people.

It is the “buy low” part of the equation that people tend to struggle with more. Something in the news for being popular and making money is probably not trading at a low price. Buying low often means a metaphorical dumpster dive to find the unwanted dregs of the market. It is often not pleasant or easy to put your money in something that has a reputation as an unattractive investment. But if you want to buy low, that is where you frequently need to go.

The upshot is that this makes it a lot easier to get excited about a down market. It feels good to participate in a rising market, but it can be difficult to find spots to buy in when markets are up. For a value investor, market selloffs may lead to buying opportunities.

Clients, many of you already know what we are talking about. We are in business with you for a reason—we think you are the best clients in the world. We know it is not always easy to make disciplined investing decisions. But we think you have what it takes.

If you have questions about this or any other topic, please call or email us.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.

All investing involves risk including loss of principal. No strategy assures success or protects against loss.

Honestly, It’s Not For Everyone

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Louisville, Nebraska has been the home of our business even before we moved into the office at 228 Main. It was our family home for many years before I started my practice, and it was from that home office that I struck out into business on my own.

I have mixed feelings about the great state of Nebraska. I enjoy seeing all of the friendly faces I know and love, and I look forward to many more days working in beautiful downtown Louisville. I do not look forward to spending several dozen more winters in Nebraska, but as you probably know, I have ways around that.

Nebraska’s tourism commission just unveiled a new ad campaign that embraces some of these feelings, announcing “Nebraska: Honestly, it’s not for everyone.”

Perhaps this slogan explains why the state is so near and dear to our hearts. We do not put much stock in advertising, but if we did, “it’s not for everyone” would be an apt slogan for our own business.

We are contrarians by nature. We like to think that we know what we are about, and through our communications, we hope we can give you some idea of what we are about as well. We do not have a lot of time to spend trying to be anything else. We know we are not always going to be a good fit, and would rather work with those we are than try to be everything to everybody.

We are definitely not for everyone. We do not want to be in business with everyone; we want to be in business with the best clients in the world. In our opinion, we are lucky enough to have found them.

Clients, if you want to discuss anything, please email us or call.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.

All investing involves risk including loss of principal. No strategy assures success or protects against loss.

 

Parrots and Canaries

© Can Stock Photo / bugphai

Once upon a time, canaries were used as a warning system for the buildup of toxic gases in coal mines. Death of the canary served as a warning to get out. These birds may be more popular now in the writings of market commentators than they ever were for mine safety.

A different bird might make a more useful metaphor. The Monty Python comedy troupe once performed a dialogue between a disgruntled customer and a pet shop owner. The customer was attempting to return a Norwegian Blue Parrot, which had apparently been dead when purchased.

The pet shop owner contends that the bird is resting, or stunned, or perhaps pining for the fjords. He attempts to distract the customer with praise for the bird’s beautiful plumage. The customer lets loose with an extensive string of euphemisms for death. “He has ceased to be! Bereft of life, kicked the bucket, shuffled off this mortal coil, run down the curtain, joined the choir invisible.”

The Norwegian blue may make a better analogy than the canary in the coal mine for financial markets.

Why? When the canary died, nobody debated it, or even suggested finishing out the shift down in the mine. But the death of the parrot was the subject of a long argument. That is what happens in the financial markets. For any product or security or market index you can find opinions on both sides at any time. BUY! SELL! BUY! SELL!

There are parts of the investment universe where certain commentary seems to us like someone saying “beautiful plumage” about a dead parrot. And, to be fair, there are other sectors which we believe are resting, or stunned, or perhaps pining for the fjords. Think of how a market optimist must have sounded in March of 2009 at the stock market bottom.

As contrarian investors, we typically hold some unpopular opinions. We believe profit potential lives where there are gaps between consensus perception and unfolding reality. So we do not really want everybody to agree with us—we cannot all be contrarians! We make no guarantees, but this is how we strive to do things here.

Clients, if you would like to talk about either “the canary in the coal mine” or “the parrot in the pet shop,” email us or call.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.

All investing involves risk including loss of principal. No strategy assures success or protects against loss.

 

Simply Effective: Avoiding Stampedes

© Can Stock Photo / dgphotography

“Avoiding stampedes” may be the simplest and most straightforward of our three fundamental principles of investing. Let’s talk about what it means.

In our view, a stampede in the markets has two features: large volumes of money changing hands, and irrational pricing. Information, evidence and indications about money flows are readily available. The assessment of pricing is necessarily more subjective.

At the time, many believe that prices make sense—or they would not be where they are. Technology and internet stocks in early 2000, homes in 2007, and commodities in 2011 all fit that pattern. At the peak, some true believers thought there was significant room for further increases. Only with the benefit of hindsight is it obvious that things were out of whack.

These examples are all about stampedes into a sector. Money also stampedes out of things at times, as we know. Stocks during the last financial crisis and high yield energy bonds near the bottom in oil prices in early 2016 are prime examples.

You may recognize a pattern. The habit of avoiding stampedes is a contrarian approach to investing—going against the crowd. If everybody else is doing it, we probably don’t want to.

In fact, if everybody else is doing one thing, we may seek to do the opposite.
Behavioral economics lends support to our practice, in our opinion. Much work in that field purports to show that most people do the wrong thing at the wrong time, thereby hurting their returns. Doing better than average would seem to require doing the opposite of what most people do.

(Of course, no method or system or theory is guaranteed to work, or even to perform the same in the future as it has in the past. And putting a theory into practice may be difficult to do.)

In practice, being a contrarian can be lonely. The crowd at the diner is unlikely to endorse doing what nobody else seems to be doing. We don’t care—we are striving to make investment returns, not please the crowd.

Clients, if you would like to talk about this or anything else, please email us or call.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. All performance referenced is historical and is no guarantee of future results.

All investing involves risk including loss of principal. No strategy assures success or protects against loss.

Bonds are subject to market and interest rate risk if sold prior to maturity. Bond values will decline as interest rates rise and bonds are subject to availability and change in price.

Four Trends for Fall, 2018

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The gap between consensus expectations and reality as it unfolds is where we think profit potential lives. This is why we put so much effort into studying trends, and the ramifications for investors.

One year ago, we wrote about four trends. The next energy revolution (solar + batteries), long range prospects for the world’s most populous democracy, the airline industry, and rising interest rates continue to play roles in our thoughts and portfolios.

Other ideas are also in play.

1. Thinking about the next few years, our highest conviction idea is inflation will exceed consensus expectations. Some of the ways we act on this belief may provide some counterweight to other portfolio holdings, since inflation hurts some industries while it helps others.

2. As the economic expansion lengthens toward record territory, the desire to extend our lifespan tends to be insensitive to the business cycle. Biopharmaceutical companies, working on cures for everything from Alzheimers to various forms of cancer, seem attractively priced.

3. The trend toward rising interest rates, noted last year, may have an effect on weaker and more leveraged companies. We are looking to avoid the second-order and third-order effects that higher rates may have on some borrowers.

4. US stocks have become popular relative to international equities, with dramatic outperformance over the past decade. At some point the trend changes, and better value usually wins out.

One of the difficult things about being contrarian–going against the crowd–is that we sometimes look silly. When everybody else is having more success in the short run while we search for bargains, it can be tough. But that is what we do. We’re excited about the continuing evolution of your holdings as the future unfolds.

We can offer no guarantees except that we will continue to put our best effort into the endeavor. Clients, if you have any questions or comments or insights to add, please email us or call.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.

The economic forecasts set forth in this material may not develop as predicted and there can be no guarantee that strategies promoted will be successful.

 

Steering the Herd

© Can Stock Photo / carla720

One of our core investment principles is to “avoid the stampede.” If you read this site regularly you have heard us say this over and over again, but we think it bears repeating.

As part of our work we talk to many product representatives who want a slice of our business. There are countless product providers out there competing for our attention, and your money. There are limited amounts of both to go around, so inevitably most of the wholesalers that talk to us are going to be disappointed. However, we still like talking to them as they do us a vital service: they tell us which way the stampede is going.

We are contrarians by nature. When we hear someone tell us that a lot of people are buying something, our instinct is not to line up alongside them. When a lot of people tell us that a lot of people are buying the same thing—our instinct is to run far, far away.

Lately, what we are hearing from the product wholesalers is that everyone is piling into exotic alternative investments. Everyone is looking for exciting new products that are not correlated to stock market returns, and boy, are the product providers ever ready to sell it to them.

We live in uncertain times, and it is understandable to be spooked at some of the troubling headlines we see. We understand the desire to seek safety. But, we believe that safety is not to be found from following the herd. Omaha is famous for its stockyards and slaughterhouses; we know that when the cattle are all getting steered together, it rarely ends well for the cattle.

We know there are always uncertainties with the economy and the markets. But the sales pitches we hear for everything non-correlated to stocks makes us feel a lot more secure in our traditional equity investment philosophy. There may come a time when the herd starts stampeding back towards equities and it will be time for us to look elsewhere. For now, though, our equity focus puts us in lonely company when it comes to wholesalers—and that is just how we like it.

If you want to talk about any market trends or sales pitches you may have noticed, please feel free to call or email us.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.

You Are Somebody, Not Everybody

© Can Stock Photo / Bialasiewicz

Our pursuit of effective strategies for successful investing covers a wide range of disciplines. Economics and mathematics are obviously needed, but history and psychology play surprisingly large roles.

As contrarian investors, avoiding stampedes is a fundamental principle for us. We often find ourselves going against the crowd. It turns out that there is a lot of conventional wisdom with which we disagree.

The world is complex; humans use shortcuts all the time to keep things simple enough to handle. The problem arises when characteristics of a group are ascribed to each individual within the group, as a shortcut way of dealing with people.

For example, Americans on average are sedentary and overweight. But if you watch who enters the door of the YMCA at 6 A.M., you know that the group characteristics do not apply to every individual. We use this same principle to find clients who will not sell out at low points or fall for the latest overpriced fad.

Behavioral economics indicates that humans tend to behave in counterproductive ways when it comes to investing. But just as the “Y” does not treat each member as if they were overweight and sedentary, we know that counterproductive behavior is optional at the individual level. We choose to try to avoid it.

We were reminded of this recently in reviewing some studies about happiness. The studies show that people quickly take new things for granted, homes and cars for example, so the initial happiness soon wears off. But in our experience, this is a matter of choice.

When in Louisville, I live in the humblest quarters ever since I graduated from college. I am grateful to have an abode that meets my modest needs. In Florida, my days are spent in a nice home that is wonderfully suited to our family. My gratitude and appreciation and happiness about that never flags. This just puts me right in the middle of the pack of the greatest clients in the world. (Our opinion.)

When we read studies about behavior, we will always remember that you are somebody, not everybody. Economists and psychologists can prove all they want about human tendencies, but we will not accept their findings as your fate or ours.

Clients, if you would like to talk about this or anything else, please email us or call.