Can you be a contrarian investor?

One of the team at Mindful Money asked me for an opinion on contrarian investing recently.

I gave her a point of view, but it made me think.

There seem to be different definitions of what it means, for a start.

Sometimes it seems to be about always going against the prevailing sentiment, sometimes it’s only when the prevailing view is seen to be wrong.

I don’t want to get into the area of “basic investment is about the rise in value over time, therefore there is always long-term optimism and contrarianism is therefore compulsorily based on a bearish view”.  That’s getting into economics and investment theory, and I don’t pretend to be expert on them.

What I want to do is set out some of the psychology that seems to rule it and, since I’m a scientist and an evidence based practitioner, discuss some of the evidence.

If we’re talking about sentiment, noise, feeling in the market (which is what we seem to be doing) we’re talking about fairly short term things.

That seems to mean that a contrarian is listening to the market noise and doing the opposite of what the “word on the street” says, while the mainstream follows the word on the street.

So contrarianism works on exactly the same material as the mainstream, it just does the opposite.

I can’t see anything wrong with that, but it does make things a bit tricky.  You’re dealing with people’s beliefs, irrationality etc.  So imagine this:

There’s a celebrity talent show (say like Strictly Come Dancing) where you get a prize for voting for the eventual winner. The eventual winner will be the one who gets the most public votes. You happen to think contestant A is best. You know that your friends prefer contestants B or C. Will you vote for A, knowing that they probably won’t win and you won’t win the prize? Vote for B or C, knowing that they are more popular and therefore more likely to win?  Or vote for, say F, because you’ve read that they make huge charity donations and you think that most people will like them and vote for them?

If you substitute “investor” for “public voter” and share for celebrity, that’s pretty much what you’ve got in a market.

Whatever you do with votes, investments etc., notice that you don’t care about who is the “best” any more.  You are not concerned with value, fundamentals, management teams etc. you are thinking about “who do other people think is the best”, or more accurately “who are they going to vote for or invest in”? The real “value” is irrelevant, you’re trying to read the mind of everybody else, work out who will win and vote accordingly.

So it seems that in order to profit by that, you have to have some sort of expert knowledge of who the best dancer (or best value share) is.

Which means you’ve got to ignore the gossip and sentiment altogether and work those things out.  When you’ve done so, you might go for a contrarian stance – but only because you think it is valuing the shares wrongly, not because somehow being contrarian is better.  You might just as easily decide that market sentiment is right about the long term value.

However, maybe it means that you can work out arbitrage opportunities.

But as Malkiel has pointed out, if the short term, market sentiment mean that “prices systematically deviated from what were rational estimates of value, professionals who are richly incentivized to outperform would be able to beat the market”.

They don’t reliably beat the market, so it doesn’t seem to be that easy.

Similarly, if people consistently made money from listening to gossip and either doing what it says or the opposite, there would be some studies that show evidence of it.  The absence of studies like that and the fact that no funds consistently beat the market suggest that nobody can do it.

Or maybe somebody has the secret, but hasn’t told anybody!

Of course, Warren Buffet does consistently well, but he vociferously states that he looks at underlying value and doesn’t listen to the market sentiment, having said on occasion that having bought, he’d not care if the market closed for a couple of years, and that as he didn’t want daily quotes on his 100% subsidiaries, why would he want to know market sentiment about stock he owns 7% of?

Despite the psychologist Dan Ariely writing the immensely popular, Predictably Irrational, the irrationality of markets has proved not to be predictable at all.

And I’m glad to say that Professor Ariely has, more recently, come over to my camp – I have always complained that moaning about irrationality and insisting that logic was the only proper way to behave was crazy.

Human beings didn’t evolve to be logical, logic only works in certain areas (you can’t apply it strictly to markets, for example) and if you try to live your life by logic alone, you end up with more problems than if you go by gut instinct alone (although the optimal course is a mixture of logic/rationality and gut instinct).

And in 2010, Professor Ariely published, The upside of irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home.

Blowing my own trumpet, I’ll say that they weren’t unexpected by me!

So I can understand the psychology behind contrarianism.  It is appealing, and, if it’s defined as being about working out the true value (like Buffett does) and working out arbitrage opportunities because market sentiment is wrong, it’s logical as well.

The trouble is, it seems to be so difficult that nobody can do it consistently.

I can, however, understand the psychology behind it.  Investors want to think that they are, like Mourinho, “the special one”.  The trouble is, the odds are that, if any statistics about making it work are compiled, any given investor will simply be another statistic that shows it’s very hard.

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  • Anonymous

    A fascinating article, Kim. Perhaps “contrarianism” is that “blinding glimpse of the obvious” moment when all the pieces of the puzzle fall into place and the individual can see clearly the route ahead. The fact, as you say, that it doesn’t happen often and is hard to pin down just makes me think we are (after all these millennia) just coming to realise that our understanding of our selves is at quite a “primitive” level (in terms of investing).