contrarian investing

When Dark Clouds Fill the Sky

© Can Stock Photo / pzAxe

Warren Buffett’s latest shareholder letter contained a remarkable paragraph:

“Every decade or so, dark clouds will fill the economic skies, and they will briefly rain gold. When downpours of that sort occur, it’s imperative that we rush outdoors carrying washtubs, not teaspoons. And that we will do.”

Long-time clients saw how this worked in the recovery from the 2009 crisis low point, and the post-9/11 lows in 2002. You are a remarkable group: when others panicked and sold out, many of you stayed the course. There is no guarantee, of course, that history will repeat, or that past performance indicates future outcomes.

Like great chess players, we need to be thinking many moves ahead. In our opinion, the economy in the US and around the globe is pretty good. We do not buy the whole stock market, we pick our spots. And we are excited about those spots.

But we do need to be steeled to both occasional market corrections of up to 10%, and the deeper declines that occur from time to time. They cannot be reliably predicted. What is in our control, however, is how we react. Do we sell out at low points, or get in position for a possible recovery? We are taking steps that may mitigate a general market decline—no guarantees, of course.

We are a little more prone to keep a little cash in reserve, to diversify into lower-priced markets, to continue to prune holdings that may be extended and add names we believe to be bargains. Most of our holdings are not sitting at all-time highs, although overall market averages are–the S&P 500 for example reached a new high as recently as March 1st1. You can read about our current themes here.

In the very best case, markets and our account values fluctuate. This is the tradeoff we accept in order to seek the returns we need to pursue our goals.

We have a great partnership with you, our amazing group of clients. You understand living with volatility can lead to long term rewards. We think we know what to do, whether the skies are blue or the dark clouds have gathered. If you have questions or comments, please write or call.

1Market data from Standard & Poor’s


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.

There is no guarantee that a diversified portfolio will enhance overall returns or outperform a non-diversified portfolio. Diversification does not protect against market risk.

Fear and Greed

© Can Stock Photo / Andreus

Two of the primary emotions affecting the stock market, it is said, are fear and greed.

Facts and figures are prominent in our work of assessing and ranking various investment opportunities. But in the day to day action of any market, buyers and sellers and their motivations have an oversize impact.

In our view, fear has dominated most of the last eight years in the US stock market. Many investors sold out after the double drubbings beginning in 2000 and in 2007. Money flows from retail investors, reflecting withdrawals from the market in most recent years, seem to confirm it.

Anecdotally, we also noticed burgeoning interest in strategies that hoped to avoid exposure to the stock market yet still make money. Commodities, derivatives, factor investing, bonds at low interest rates and other fads drew in a lot of money. This, we believe, reflected fear of the stock market.

For much of the market rise since 2009, it was said to be ‘the most hated rally in history’ because so many people missed out.

Knowing Warren Buffett’s famous dictum, “Be greedy when others are fearful, and fearful when others are greedy,” we stayed the course through the downturn. None of us hated this rally, did we?

Now the market sits at all-time highs. This probably makes sense when earnings are high and rising, and interest rates remain fairly low. But we are on the lookout for signs that greed has become the dominant force in the market. When others become greedy, perhaps we need to become fearful.

We are also doing other things, as well. You may have noticed winning positions getting trimmed back, and potential new bargains (we hope!) being added to portfolios. Owning bargains is no guarantee against loss, but we believe it helps. We are also nibbling at other markets in other lands, ones that have lagged and may be at low levels.

Our new portfolio design, accommodating layers of cash and more moderate investments as well as our traditional research-driven core layer, is another way to attempt to mitigate future downside.

The markets go up and down. We cannot build wealth over the long haul without facing that, and living with it. If you would like to talk about your portfolio or situation in detail, 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.

Stock investing involves risk including loss of principal.

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.

International investing involves special risks such as currency fluctuation and political instability and may not be suitable for all investors. These risks are often heightened for investments in emerging markets.

Professionalism? Or Pandering?

© Can Stock Photo / stokkete

Two popular trends in the investment business may be affecting the financial health of clients. In my opinion the use of “risk tolerance assessment” tools, combined with the trend toward model portfolios, may be good for advisors and bad for the customer.

Many advisors use risk tolerance assessments. The issue is that when markets are lovely and rising, these tests have the potential to show that risk tolerance is high based on the client’s response. When markets are ugly and falling, they have the potential to show risk tolerance is low based on the client’s response. These tests measure changing conditions, not some fixed internal thermostat.

The potential for mischief comes into play when the results are tied to model portfolios. A lower risk tolerance potentially gets you a portfolio with less chance for long term growth, lower exposure to fluctuating but rewarding markets, and more supposedly stable investments with smaller potential returns. So the market goes down, risk tolerance goes down, and people may sell out at low points.

Conversely, when markets go up, risk tolerance goes up, and people may buy in at high points.

The old rule is ‘buy low, sell high.’ It is my opinion that the supposedly scientific approach of risk tolerance assessment tied to model portfolios encourages people to do exactly the opposite.

It appears to be objective, almost scientific. The pie charts are impressive. But the process panders to the worst elements of untrained human nature—and actual investment outcomes may show it.

It is as if the cardiologist, upon learning that a patient dislikes sweating, prescribes sitting on the couch instead of exercise. Or if a pediatrician first assesses a child’s tolerance for icky-tasting medicine, then tailors his prescription accordingly.

We believe that people can handle the truth. Our experience says people can learn to understand and live with volatility on some fraction of their wealth in order to strive for long term returns.

So the first step in our process is to determine if a prospective client can be an effective investor. It doesn’t matter to us whether they were born with great instincts or are trainable—we provide support and education through all kinds of markets. It takes a lot of effort, but we do it because of the results it may provide.

If you need a refresher on the ‘buy low, sell high’ thing or would like to discuss how this affects your plans and planning, please write 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.

There is no assurance that the techniques and strategies discussed are suitable for all investors or will yield positive outcomes. The purchase of certain securities may be required to effect some of the strategies. Investing involves risks including possible loss of principal.

Memento Mori

© Can Stock Photo / boggy

In ancient Rome, it was customary for the city to throw lavish triumphal parades in honor of victorious generals. The whole city would turn out to celebrate those who had brought glory to Rome. For a successful general, it was an intoxicating reward.

Lest their generals become too intoxicated with success, however, the Romans would assign a servant with a unique task. Their job was to follow the triumphant general throughout the festivities and periodically whisper in their ear memento mori: “Remember, you are mortal.”

It is humbling advice, and one that we would do well to remember. The markets have had several great quarters lately, leading to the Dow average topping the dizzying benchmark of 20,000 points for the first time last week. We have no way of knowing how high it may get in this rally or the next, either.

We do know one thing, however: no rally lasts forever. No matter how high the market soars, it can always drop back down. We don’t know when, and we don’t know how much, but someday that day will come. There is always a recession in our future.

Our goal is to try to minimize the damage by avoiding stampedes when we see them. When investor sentiment gets overly exuberant, when we start hearing people say “You can’t lose money in the stock market”, this is when we must pay heed: “Remember, market rallies are mortal.” We are confident that in the long run the markets may bounce back from future downturns as they have always done before and we can potentially be better off afterwards—but the recovery will undoubtedly be slower and more painful if we fall into the trap of thinking that our portfolios are invincible just because they’re doing well now.

We’re thrilled with our performance over the past year and excited about the continued evolution of our portfolio strategies. At the same time, we know that nothing lasts forever. At some point in the future, we will have to reckon with another downturn. It might be in a year, or it might be in five years. Either way we must keep this inevitable fact in mind if we hope to try to mitigate the damage. If this weighs on your plans and planning, give us a call or email us to discuss your situation.


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.

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.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average is comprised of 30 stocks that are major factors in their industries and widely held by individuals and institutional investors.

Stealthy is the Bull

© Can Stock Photo / KarSol

The broad stock market indicators like the Dow Jones Average and the S&P 500 Stock Index reached a low point in March 2009, near the end of the financial crisis. Looking back a year or four years or seven years later, hindsight showed that the crisis was potentially a great buying opportunity.

Many investors missed out on the multi-year rise, however. (Or should they be called former investors?) In real time, nobody ever knows what will happen next, particularly in the short term. And rising markets, or ‘bull markets’ as they are known, seem to have many disguises.

After a rebound begins from a long decline, inevitably some pundits label the rise with an overly colorful phrase, “dead cat bounce.” The implication is that, while there might be a bounce, it certainly won’t go very high or last very long—the market is going nowhere.

Next comes the idea that if buying has produced a slight turnaround, it is just “short-covering.” This means that speculators who profited from the drop are now booking their profits, reversing their positions. Supposedly, there are no ‘real’ buyers.

When the market persists in the upward trend, the next excuse might be that “the market got oversold.” Therefore a temporary bounce is to be expected, before the market slumps again.

Then when the next slump fails to show, pessimists start saying things like, “We can’t know we are in a new uptrend unless the market reaches new all-time highs.” Or “It has gone up too far, too fast.”

When you take a step back and look at the big picture, those poor pessimists never could get back into the stock market. They had one rationale after another to doubt the recovery; meanwhile the market went up and up.

Do not worry about the bears, however: they have a new story. “The market is too expensive.”

Fortunately, we don’t buy the whole market anyway—we seek the bargains. You can read about our current strategies in this article. If you would like to talk about your portfolio or situation, please write 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.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average is comprised of 30 stocks that are major factors in their industries and widely held by individuals and institutional investors.

The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index is a capitalization weighted index of 500 stocks designed to measure performance of the broad domestic economy through changes in the aggregate market value of 500 stocks representing all major industries.

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

Annual Market Forecast

© Can Stock Photo Inc. / ShutterM

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 76% accurate. So perhaps the question should be, if you knew which way the stock market was going to go 76% of the time, 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 76% 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.


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.

The Longest Journey, Part Two

© Can Stock Photo / lmphot

W is the person we know who made the longest journey to become an effective investor. Before, he chased performance, jumped on popular investments, and focused only on the short-term action of his holdings.

In Part One we profiled how he managed to learn the correct lesson from the Tech Wreck in the year 2000. W learned that popular but over-priced assets are dangerous. Others learned the wrong lesson, “stocks are dangerous.” Those who learned that lesson generally went on to buy over-priced real estate, or withdrew completely from investing.

W profited by owning equity investments in the recovery from the technology bubble, all the way up to the stock market peak in 2007.

Approaching his retirement years, the ensuing market value losses terrified him. He told us later he did not know how he was going to explain to his wife how he had ruined their financial situation.

Although he was tempted to sell out at low points several times during the financial crisis, three things helped him stay invested, but just barely:

  1. The realization that the damage was probably already done, and selling out would only lock in the losses from the peak.
  2. Our relentless reminders of how market cycles work, and the positive perspective that comes from taking the long view.
  3. The dawning realization that portfolio income is what would supplement his retirement—not the market value that appeared on his statements. “If the fruit crop is big enough, why would you have to worry about what the neighbor would pay you for the orchard?”

There is no polite way to say it. W was a difficult client in these years. We spent a lot of time talking him down from the ledge, so to speak. But it was worth it, for the kind of investor that W became.

When the recovery from the financial crisis arrived, W’s portfolio was in position to potentially rebound, and it did. Free from worry about short term action, he could stand to own bargains that might be volatile in the short run. It paid off.

W went through the valley of the shadow of death, and learned that fear was optional. More accurately, he learned that fear did not need to be acted upon. When he emerged on the far side of the valley with more wealth than ever before, his experience had inoculated him against worrying about short term fluctuations.

W had completed the second part of his journey. He had learned two crucial lessons. But he was not yet fully formed as an effective investor. One more lesson was needed. It came entirely from within himself, with no help from us. We’ll write about that in the next installment.

If you would like to talk about your journey or your situation, please call or write.

Part Three


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.

This is a hypothetical situation based on real life examples. Names and circumstances have been changed. To determine which investments or strategies may be appropriate for you, consult your financial advisor prior to investing.

Investing involves risk including loss of principal.

The Biggest Stampede Ever?

© Can Stock Photo / afhunta

We think it every day. We’ve written it scores of times. We’ve said it thousands of times. We believe it is the most valuable principle we follow: “Avoid stampedes in the market.”

In our view of the world, a stampede has two criteria: large money flows in, and irrational pricing. For example, in the technology boom of the late 1990’s, very large money flows went into technology stocks. Some were new issues that had no business, no earnings, only a plan. Others were real businesses, but priced five or ten times what they would have been in more normal times.

(We usually speak of stampedes rather than bubbles, because ‘stampede’ connotes herd behavior that is an integral part of the process.)

The flight to safety, or money pouring into the supposed safety of fixed income investments, has reached historic levels. The large money flow satisfies one criteria of a stampede. What about the other one, irrational pricing?

The government of Italy recently issued fifty year bonds. A very few years ago, Italy could barely sell bonds due to the well-publicized economic problems of Europe and the systemic flaws of the Euro common currency. Italian bonds, of course, are denominated in euros. So investors in the bonds issued by a country thought to be going broke a few years ago, denominated in a troubled currency that was born only fourteen years ago, will not get their money back for fifty years.

In a sane world, what ridiculously high rate of interest would be required to persuade you to buy these bonds, if you could even be convinced at any price?

How about 2.85% per year? That is where the bonds were issued. It seems every bit as ridiculous as the most over-priced dot-bomb stock of the tech wreck. Both criteria of a stampede have been met, in spades.

We are working hard to understand the threats and opportunities presented by this stampede. We believe it is the key issue in the markets for the years ahead. If you are interested in how your situation might be affected, please write 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.

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.

International debt securities involves special additional risks. These risks include, but are not limited to, currency risk, geopolitical and regulatory risk, and risk associated with varying settlement standards. These risks are often heightened for investments in emerging markets.

The Melting Pot Matures

canstockphoto4480931

A few weeks ago the Nobel Prize Committee announced the latest round of Nobel laureates for 2016. Seven Americans were named to this high honor—and six of the seven were immigrants, born outside of this country.

Immigration is frequently a hot topic during an election year, this one perhaps more than most. On the one side, we are told that immigration is costing us jobs, lowering our wages, and causing more crime. On the other side we are given a moral argument, that we are a nation of immigrants who should welcome others into our melting-pot culture as we have welcomed those who came before.

We set aside the moral side of this debate; while we occasionally dip into moral philosophy, this blog concerns itself chiefly with practical matters of economics. And as a practical matter, there are very good reasons why we should appreciate the value that immigrants bring to our country, above and beyond whatever Nobel prizes they may win.

As a country we are facing a demographic crisis. Since the 1970s, we have been having noticeably fewer children per family than we did previously. As our generation reaches retirement age, record numbers of Americans are leaving the workforce. I still plan on working until I’m 92—but many of my contemporaries have other plans. As we leave, there are more openings left behind than we have children and grandchildren to fill.

This demographic wall creates a major drag on the economy: we want to grow our economy faster, but we simply don’t have enough workers to do it. For the past year we’ve seen the unemployment rate hovering at 5% and below. Even as the economy recovers and we start to add jobs, there’s going to be a very real question as to who will be filling them. The workers simply aren’t there. To some extent this is a regional issue—some of our employment woes could be fixed by having job-seekers move from economically depressed areas to thriving areas where jobs are being created too quickly to fill. But not everyone can uproot their lives for work, and where people cannot or will not relocate, the only alternative is to import workers from elsewhere.

Ours is not the only country facing this demographic crisis. We need only look at Japan, Europe, and other parts of the developed world to see what happens when an aging population is not replaced. Many first world countries have a lower birth rate and lower immigration rate—and, not coincidentally, lower GDP growth. We would do well to learn from their example what not to do.

This is not to say that we endorse open borders or encourage illegal immigration. We are a nation of law. We should have sensible laws that are enforced in a fair and even-handed manner. But to suggest that we should slam the door shut on immigrants is to ignore the economic reality we face. One of the best and surest ways to expand our economy is to add new people to it—and we will need to, if we wish to continue growing at a reasonable rate.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only.

Nattering Nabobs of Negativism

© Can Stock Photo Inc. / junjie

Once upon a time in America, a sitting vice president was investigated for extortion, tax fraud, bribery and conspiracy. In a plea bargain deal, he pled no contest to a tax charge and resigned. Although historians judge Spiro Agnew as perhaps the worst vice president in history, he did bequeath us the memorable phrase in our headline.

We begin our essay this way for two reasons. First, although some believe the current times are the worst ever or the most this or the least that, there probably are no new things under the sun. Second, the pervasive rotten mood of the country has reached fairly extreme levels.

As contrarians, we believe the times of greatest danger in the markets are when optimism reigns and it seems like clear sailing ahead. Think 1999.

Conversely, the times of greatest opportunity are when the mood is in the toilet. There was a lot to be negative about in 1974, when Nixon resigned and the Arab Oil Embargo meant there was no gas at the gas station and inflation was heating up. And 1982, when mortgage interest rates hit 15% and businesses paid 20% interest and the economy slipped into a double-dip recession. And 1990, with war in the Mideast and falling house prices and the fallout from a huge financial crisis in the S&L’s…same thing. And 2002, when we were dealing with recession and the aftermath of 9/11 and terrorism.

Following each of those episodes, major gains ensued in the stock market. Why is this pertinent today?

Contrarians have to be delighted with the pervasive pessimism of the public. (Or the nattering nabobs of negativism, if you prefer.) LPL Research strategist Ryan Detrick has documented a variety of sentiment measures that have reached multi-year or multi-decade extremes. Gallup reports the most prolonged negative poll readings for the question of whether the country is on the right track or wrong track. You can learn in any barber shop or café that we are going to hell in a handbasket, just listen.

Warren Buffett stated our view more concisely when he wrote, “Be greedy when others are fearful.” If you would like to know more about how this relates to your situation, call or write.


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.