Why Investors Must Be Contrarians to Outperform The Market

  1. Bill Gurley: “Being ‘right’ doesn’t lead to superior performance if the consensus forecast is also right.”

Andy Rachleff elaborates on the point made by Gurley: “What most people don’t realize is if you’re right and consensus you don’t make money.” It is a bit strange that most people don’t realize this truth and yet it is common sense: you simply can’t be part of the crowd and at the same time beat the crowd, especially after fees and costs are imposed. Nobel Laureate William Sharpe famously provided the mathematical proof in a paper entitled “The Arithmetic of Active Management.” As restated by John Bogle the conclusion is: “In many areas of the market, there will be a loser for every winner so, on average, investors will get the return of that market less fees.” Of course, the part about the investors collectively getting the return of the market is key. Being a long term investor in the progress of the economy is a very good thing. As life runs its course, some investors get more of that financial return of the market than others.

A key point in all of this is that you can decide not to try to outperform a market and instead to match it as closely as you can a very low cost. Warren Buffett describes the motivation for this approach well: “By periodically investing in an index fund, for example, the know-nothing investor can actually outperform most investment professionals. Paradoxically, when ‘dumb’ money acknowledges its limitations, it ceases to be dumb.”

  1. Jeff Bezos: “You just have to remember that contrarians are usually wrong.”

This point made by Bezos is the reason why most people follow the crowd. Michael Mauboussin explains this tendency with a simple example:

“Being a contrarian for the sake of being a contrarian is not a good idea. In other words, when the movie theater’s on fire, run out the door, right? Don’t run in the door…. Successful contrarian investing isn’t about going against the grain per se, it’s about exploiting expectations gaps. If this assertion is true, it leads to an obvious question: how do these expectations gaps arise? Or, more basically, how and why are markets inefficient?”

Mauboussin explains why some investments get mispriced so badly:

“Because if the crowd takes something to an extreme, either on the bullish side or the bearish side, that should show up in your disconnect between fundamentals and expectations. And that is what allows you to make a good investment… Again, the goal is not to be a contrarian just to be a contrarian, but rather to feel comfortable betting against the crowd when the gap between fundamentals and expectations warrants it. This independence is difficult because the widest gap often coincides with the strongest urge to be part of the group. Independence also incorporates the notion of objectivity—an ability to assess the odds without being swayed by outside factors. After all, prices not only inform investors, they also influence investors.”

This blog has repeatedly profiled great investors who have acquired skill in knowing when to be contrarian. Buffett’s famous admonition is: “be greedy when others are fearful and fearful when others are greedy.” One of the best times to invest is when uncertainty is the greatest and fear is the highest. This contrarian admonition is fully consistent with the Mr. Market metaphor. Make the market your servant and not your master. For example, Jeffrey Gundlach puts it this way: “I want fear. I want to buy things when people are afraid of it, not when they think it’s a gift being handed down to them.” There aren’t many people like Charlie Munger: “We have a history when things are really horrible of wading in when no one else will.”

Bucking the crowd’s viewpoint in practice in the real world is not easy since the investor is fighting social proof. Robert Cialdini: social proof is most powerful for those who feel unfamiliar or unsure in a specific situation and who, consequently, must look outside of themselves for evidence of how best to behave there.” I discussed social proof in a recent blog post on Cialdini’s book Influence. In many cases, following the crowd (social proof) makes sense. Sticking with the warmth of the crowd is a natural instinct for most people. Many people would rather fail conventionally than succeed unconventionally. But doing the reverse is easier said that done for most people.

  1. Andy Rachleff: “Investment can be explained with a 2×2 matrix. On one axis you can be right or wrong. And on the other axis you can be consensus or non-consensus. Now obviously if you’re wrong you don’t make money. The only way as an investor and as an entrepreneur to make outsized returns is by being right and non-consensus.”

It is the existence of a gap between expected value and market price that Mauboussin talked about above which should drive investment decision making. If you have views which reflect the consensus of the crowd you are unlikely to outperform a market since a market by definition reflects the consensus view.  Buffett puts it this way: “Most people get interested in stocks when everyone else is. The time to get interested is when no one else is. You can’t buy what is popular and do well.” Charlie Munger is more direct and colorful is his explanation: “For a security to be mispriced, someone else must be a damn fool. It may be bad for world, but not bad for Berkshire.” Sometimes waves of social proof and other dysfunctional heuristics create a significant gap between price and value. This does not happen often in areas within a person’s circle of competence, but it does happen. For some investors, spotting a gap like this happens only once or twice a year and that is just fine with them. In those instances these investors bet big and the rest of the time they do nothing. Some people, like day traders, think they can spot gaps between expected value and market price several times a day and make a profit after fees (this is almost always a triumph of hope over experience).

andy

  1. Howard Marks:To achieve superior investment results, your insight into value has to be superior. Thus you must learn things others don’t, see things differently or do a better job of analyzing them – ideally all three.”

Being genuinely contrarian means the investor is going to be uncomfortable sometimes. Some people are good at being uncomfortable, and some are not. Peter Lynch said once: “To make money, you must find something that nobody else knows, or do something that others won’t do because they have rigid mind-sets.”  Successful investing is the search for the mistakes of other people say Howard Marks that may create a mispriced asset. In other words, one person’s mistake about the value of an asset is what can create an opportunity for another investor to outperform the market. This search is best done by people who are curious and hard working. Great investors hustle, have a huge scuttlebutt network and read constantly. They are constantly trying to learn more about more and know that the more that they know, they more they will know that there is even more that they don’t know. If you are not getting more humble over time, you have a flawed system.

It is Mr. Market’s irrationality that creates the opportunity for investors. Markets are often wise, but they are not always wise. The best returns accrue to investors who are patient and yet aggressive when they are offered an attractive price for an asset. Seth Klarman says: “Successful investing is the marriage of a calculator and a contrarian streak.” The most effective way to get free of social proof when the time is right is to have done the homework in advance and stay within your circle of competence.

5. Jeff Bezos: “Outsized returns often come from betting against conventional wisdom, and conventional wisdom is usually right. Given a 10% chance of a 100 times payoff, you should take that bet every time. But you’re still going to be wrong nine times out of ten. We all know that if you swing for the fences, you’re going to strike out a lot, but you’re also going to hit some home runs.” “In business, every once in a while, when you step up to the plate, you can score 1,000 runs. This long-tailed distribution of returns is why it’s important to be bold. Big winners pay for so many experiments.” 

It is magnitude of success and not frequency of success that matters for an investor. Bezos is talking about convexity in investments.  All a founder or venture capitalist can lose is 100% of what they invest in a startup and yet what they can potentially gain is potentially many multiples of that investment. Nassim Taleb provides a quadrant-based model as a guide to decision making. Michael Mauboussin provides a summary of what Nassim Taleb has created:

“A two-by-two matrix, where the rows distinguish between activities that have extreme outcomes and those that have more bunched outcomes, and the columns capture simple and complex payoffs. He allows that statistical methods work in the First Quadrant (simple payoffs and bunched outcomes), the Second Quadrant (complex payoffs and bunched outcomes), and the Third Quadrant (simple payoffs and extreme outcomes). But statistical methods fail in the Fourth Quadrant (complex payoffs and extreme outcomes).”

Richard Zeckhauser explains why

“The real world of investing often ratchets the level of non-knowledge into still another dimension, where even the identity and nature of possible future states are not known. This is the world of ignorance. In it, there is no way that one can sensibly assign probabilities to the unknown states of the world. Just as traditional finance theory hits the wall when it encounters uncertainty, modern decision theory hits the wall when addressing the world of ignorance.”

The nature of the venture capital business is that financial returns come from the Fourth Quadrant/the world of ignorance. It is only in this quadrant that optionality will be substantially mis-priced and the type of bargains found that make a venture capital portfolio work financially.

6. Marc Andreessen: “If something is already consensus then money will have already flooded in and the profit opportunity is gone. And so by definition in venture capital, if you are doing it right, you are continuously investing in things that are non-consensus at the time of investment.  And let me translate ‘non-consensus’: in sort of practical terms, it translates to crazy. You are investing in things that look like they are just nuts.” “The entire art of venture capital in our view is the big breakthrough for ideas. The nature of the big idea is that they are not that predictable.” “Most of the big breakthrough technologies/companies seem crazy at first: PCs, the internet, Bitcoin, Airbnb, Uber, 140 characters. It has to be a radical product. It has to be something where, when people look at it, at first they say, ‘I don’t get it, I don’t understand it. I think it’s too weird, I think it’s too unusual.’”

Andy Rachleff elaborates:Being willing to intelligently take this leap of faith is one of the main differences between the venture firms who consistently generate high returns — and everyone else. Unfortunately human nature is not comfortable taking risk; so most venture capital firms want high returns without risk, which doesn’t exist.  As a result they often sit on the sideline while other people make the big money from things that most people initially think are crazy. The vast majority of my colleagues in the venture capital business thought we were crazy at Benchmark to have backed eBay. ‘Beenie babies…really? How can that be a business?’” Marc Andreessen adds: “Breakthrough ideas look crazy, nuts. It’s hard to think this way — I see it in other people’s body language, and I can feel it in my own, where I sometimes feel like I don’t even care if it’s going to work, I can’t take more change. O.K., Google, O.K., Twitter—but Airbnb? People staying in each other’s houses without there being a lot of axe murders?” Most things that sounds crazy are crazy. It is the ability to use pattern recognition developed over time to see the businesses that have massive convexity “if something goes right” that makes for a great venture capitalist. The ideal startup business for a venture capitalist is a combination of half-crazy and great convexity (big upside and small downside).

Notes:

The Arithmetic of Active Management https://web.stanford.edu/~wfsharpe/art/active/active.htm

Mauboussin: http://wp.nbr.com/your-mind-and-your-money/making-better-investment-decisions-20100215

Mauboussin:  http://www.valuewalk.com/2015/02/michael-mauboussin-contrarian-investing-psychology-going-crowd/

Rachleff: https://blog.wealthfront.com/venture-capital-economics/

Cialdini:    https://25iq.com/2016/10/08/a-half-dozen-things-ive-learned-from-robert-cialdinis-book-influence/

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