contrarian investing

IT WORKS UNTIL IT DOESN’T

the photo shows a wooden desk with a keyboard, notepad, pen, and balled up pieces of paper

We’re contrarians. We are not satisfied with conventional thinking that portfolio management requires plugging in the right numbers and then following the formula.

It’s not that simple—and it can actually lead investors astray.

Here’s the deal. Modern portfolio theory—one version of the conventional wisdom—uses rigorous statistical models that attempt to quantify volatility and risk in their many forms. The idea is that if you can measure and predict volatility then you can construct a portfolio that has only as much volatility as you desire.

We believe there are a lot of problems with this approach. These models all rely on the assumption that the market will continue to behave rationally. So when the market experiences irrational exuberance, statistical models quickly lose their meaning and begin producing nonsense.

For example, one measure of a stock’s volatility is called its “beta.” The more correlated a stock’s movement is to the broader market, the higher the beta. A high beta stock tends to be a big winner or big loser based on what the market is doing, while a low beta stock generally moves less than the market. A stock can even have a negative beta, where it tends to move the opposite way from the rest of the market!

Under normal circumstances, volatile stocks tend to have a high beta. But when a hot stock gets caught up in a speculative bubble, it can take on a life of its own. A stock on a hot streak that goes up even on days when the market is down will show a lower beta than stocks that follow the market but may still be volatile.

In cases like this, investment managers that are chasing “low beta” may end up with some very volatile holdings in a portfolio that claims to prioritize stability and low market correlation. And investors that are looking to avoid the roller coaster of the stock market may find themselves on an even bigger ride without realizing it.

We believe statistical analysis can be useful, but it cannot compete with timeless investment principles. Trying to quantify volatility exposure can lead to ugly surprises when the underlying models break down.

We think there’s another way. Instead of trying to mathematically capture and avoid it, we believe in living with volatility. If you are investing for the long haul and you know where your cash flow is coming from, you do not need to fret about day-to-day price action.

Clients, if you have questions about this or anything else, please give us a call.


Content in this material is for general information only and 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.

Schrödinger’s Market

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Quantum physicist Erwin Schrödinger once came up with a thought experiment to illustrate a difficult conceptual problem. Suppose you have an opaque box with a cat inside. In the box is a mechanism that is designed to release a poison gas based on the random actions of subatomic particles on a quantum level.

Now according to quantum theory, it is literally impossible to know what these particles will do in advance. You cannot even accurately measure what they are currently doing beyond general probabilities. In fact, until you observe them they act as though they are doing multiple mutually exclusive things—including behaving as though they are two places at once!

Hence Schrödinger’s box. Without observing the contents of the box you have no way of knowing if quantum action triggered the poison or not. Thus, until you open the box and look the cat is simultaneously alive and dead: a surprising conclusion, and a difficult paradox for physicists!

You and I can leave that problem to the scientists, but Schrödinger’s box can be a useful metaphor for other unknowable states. The actions of financial markets are theoretically not as complicated as quantum mechanics. But predicting market action is so far beyond our current mathematical understanding that they might as well be.

Like quantum particles, the value of a market cannot accurately be measured without interacting with it. This leads to a great deal of uncertainty and can sometimes make it feel like multiple conflicting realities are true at once.

Reading the financial press you will often be presented with competing headlines declaring that we are simultaneously in the midst of a great bull market and a terrible bear market.

As with the box, we prefer to leave these paradoxes to people with more time on their hands. Instead of trying to time the market, we believe in sticking to timeless principles like avoiding stampedes and finding bargains in the hopes of finding quality companies. We cannot predict what market prices will do from moment to moment, but we can guess at general probabilities.

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

Two Economists

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The story goes like this. Two economists are walking down the street. One says, “Look! A $20 bill, just lying there!” and reaches to pick it up. The other says, “You fool! If that was really a $20 bill, somebody would have picked it up already.”

The underpinnings of this joke might be what is called the Efficient Markets Hypothesis, or EMH. It holds that all available information is already in the price of every security, so it is not possible to ‘beat the market.’ Related notions include the idea that investment selection does not matter, only the asset class or investment allocation.

Of course, our experience tells us that at times, certain investments do get mispriced. Condos in Las Vegas in 2007, tech stocks during the dot-com era, oil at $140 per barrel in 2008: all of these things seem to be examples of when the market was not efficient at all.

At these times, consensus expectations drifted far from the unfolding reality. “You can’t lose money in real estate” and “We’re in a new era, tech stock valuations don’t matter” and “Oil will never trade below $100 again” were the refrains of those faulty expectations. You may remember them.

Of course, we believe that the crowd can be wrong. That space between consensus expectations and the unfolding reality is where profit potential lives. One of our jobs is to try to find those exploitable anomalies and invest in them. Another is to go against the crowd when we believe it is wrong.

The simple rule, ‘never join a stampede in the markets,’ is one way we express this.

As a consequence, looking at the world with our own eyes, doing our own research, finding our own conclusions, this is what we do at 228 Main. It takes some courage to go against the crowd, to take unpopular actions, to stick with our strategies even when they require more patience than we had planned on. You and we are in this together: without your persistence, we could not do what we do over the long haul.

Hopefully from time to time we will find those $20 bills that others do not believe in.

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


Content in this material is for general information only and 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.

More Lessons from Moneyball

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Michael Lewis’s book Moneyball turned 16 over the summer. In 2015, we wrote about the contrarian lessons we noticed in the Moneyball movement. The Oakland A’s won by using data to make roster decisions, favoring things like on-base percentage over batting average. Then, after the rest of the league adopted the A’s process, the 2015 World Series champion Royals won by bucking the trend and not following along.

We’ve found another lesson within Moneyball that applies to us—and you. Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane rarely watched the product he helped put on the field to see how it performed. This may seem unusual (who wouldn’t want to watch baseball as part of their job?), but Beane had his reasons.

In a 2014 interview for the Men in Blazers podcast, Beane explained that he didn’t watch games because he did not want to do something about it in the heat of the moment. “When I watch a game, I get a visceral reaction to something that happens—which is probably not a good idea when you’re the boss, when you can actually pick up the phone and do something.”

Beane continued by saying doing something “probably isn’t logical and rational based on some temporary experience you just felt in a game.” This has meaning to us.

We all know that the market goes up and down, and we don’t find watching the ticker each second of the day to be helpful. Like Beane, we’ve strategically built our portfolios for performance over the long term (no guarantees), and we’re willing to ignore a hiccup from a star on occasion.

Like Beane, we can remove ourselves and our initial emotions from the equation. Then we can focus on only the moves to better our “team” and its goals in the big picture.

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


Content in this material is for general information only and 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.

The Anti-Buffett

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We had back-to-back conversations recently with clients who are big fans of Warren Buffett. Oddly, they seem to dislike the application of his principles to their portfolios. It is a good illustration of why Buffett’s success has endured, in our opinion. His ideas are easy to understand, hard to do.

Consider these quotations, investor first, then Buffett in bold.

“This stock has done nothing but go down since I bought it. I want to sell.”
I love it when stocks I like go down, then I can buy more at a better price.

“That company is in the news all the time with problems. I don’t think we should buy it.”
The troubles everyone knows about are already in the stock price.

“Everyone I know is afraid of this market, so I’m thinking of getting out.”
Be greedy when others are fearful.

“This stock is doing great, it’s gone up a lot since we bought it.”
Watch the company, not the stock.

These conversations are noteworthy because they are rare. The tagline on our digital archives, ‘for the best clients in the whole world,’ reflects our high esteem for you.

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


Content in this material is for general information only and 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.

Make Believe

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It’s good fun to watch small children at play, using their imagination – they might be pirates or princesses, or serving imaginary meals, or having conversations with stuffed animals.

What is not good fun are financial types who pretend that so-called “market-linked” products actually provide exposure to real investment market returns. Often, a formula used to determine returns pays only a fraction of percentage gains, puts a maximum limit on returns, and ignores the effect of dividends. That’s investing only in the same sense that talking to a teddy bear is actual conversation*.

There is another common form of make-believe in the investment world. Some pretend that one might sharply limit the ups-and-downs in an account, yet still reap stock market returns, through some special strategy or tactic. Our view is that this is pandering. Long term investing is about willingness to accept a certain amount of risk in pursuit of getting paid.

Both of these fantasies play on the natural human desire for stability. But lower volatility may come at a cost of lower returns or higher costs. By the time the investor figures out there is either less stability than expected, or lower returns, a lot of freight may have been paid. Skip the make-believe, keep it real.

Clients, not everyone agrees with us – we hold contrarian views. 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.

Rule #2

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We often talk about our three fundamental principles of investing. Rule #2 is “Buy the best bargains.” This is our intent, but we must act on what we know, which is incomplete. Our crystal ball does not actually work; we do not know the future. No guarantees.

The best bargain is likely to be unpopular—or else it might not be a bargain. We often buy into sectors that are down sharply from much higher levels, years before. The crowd is almost never rushing into shares that have declined 50 or 80% over a period of years.

This matches up nicely with our contrarian philosophy, doing our own thinking, going our own way. In fact, we believe that profit potential lives in the gap between the consensus expectation and the unfolding reality. We think there is an edge in finding a lonely, but correct, position.

There are different categories of bargains. The best bargain might be a cyclical investment at the low point in its cycle—homebuilders in recession, for example. Or a wonderful, durable blue chip company available at a temporarily low price because of some short-term issue. Or a deeply discounted bond in a stressed company that we figure is trading below liquidation value. No guarantees, as we said!

Our approach is not the only one. Some believe in buying only when an investment is already in a clear up-trend. Others want to own the things that are on the magazine covers, the ones everyone is talking about. For better or worse, we do our best to stick to our convictions. (And sometimes they are better, and sometimes they are worse.)

The value style, our philosophy, is right for us. 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.

A Better Topic Than “The Market”

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Everybody talks about it; it raises a lot of questions. Is the market too high? Where will it go next? Is it due for a fall? How will the economy affect it? (Or politics, or world affairs, or astrology?)

Many people seem to be referring to a major market average or index when they talk about the market. But the investment universe is far broader than those. The individual pieces may have little to do with what is happening with the major averages.

  • For example, even when the averages are near all time highs, stocks in some industries or companies may be half or less of their own highs from years ago.
  • The United States is not the only advanced economy in the world with a stock market. Some overseas markets have done very little for a decade, and are not close to high points.
  • Certain holdings have shown a tendency to go the opposite direction from the major averages.
  • Even with in the US stock market, some holdings appear to be bargains even when highflyers have gone off the charts.

Instead of asking those questions about “the market,” we think it makes more sense to always be asking these questions:

  • Where are the best bargains in the investment universe? We should be looking at them.
  • Where are the stampedes? We should avoid them.
  • Is there a way to secure reliable income in today’s environment?

This is a way to bring the focus to something useful, in our opinion. Clients, if you would like to talk about this or anything else, please email us or call.

To Everything There is a Season

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After a long and snowy winter, spring has finally arrived in Nebraska, and it is wasting no time. The weather may be nicer, but the sudden thaw and ensuing floods have turned much of our state into a disaster zone.

While tragic, this was a long time coming. Most folks saw how much snow had accumulated through March and knew that it would be trouble when the weather warmed up. We all know how the cycle of the seasons work, and it should be no surprise that winter is followed by spring.

The markets, like the seasons, are cyclical. After a certain point, a bull market turns into a bear market, and vice versa. Summer turns into winter; winter turns into spring. But investor behavior can sometimes overlook this important fact.

Imagine if someone looked around at how cold and snowy it was at the beginning of the month and said “There’s even more snow than there was last month! At this rate there will be two feet of snow on the ground by May!” Obviously, they would sound quite foolish.

But is this really any different than investors who, late in a market rally, say “The market is higher than ever! At this rate it will be even higher in a few months!”

We know how market cycles work. Like the weather, we are not able to predict exactly when the turning point will come. But we know that it will happen eventually, and as contrarians the stronger the trend is the harder we expect the turning point will be.

Sometimes we temporarily look foolish—a bubble may persist for years after we expect it to burst. The fellow predicting snow in May probably would have felt vindicated by how much snow got dumped on us the first half of March, after all. We would rather miss out in the short term than miss a key turn in the markets altogether, though.

To everything there is a season: a time to buy, a time to sell. Clients, if you want to talk about the markets (or the weather), 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.

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.

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.