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ETF Specialist

Making Contrarian Investing Work

Performance tends to persist in the short run, but betting on long-term losers can be a winning strategy.

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I have always admired contrarians. It isn't easy to think and act independently. Clients evaluate professional managers' performance against a benchmark, often over short windows. Those who underperform for a few years risk losing their clients, even if their investments ultimately pay off. That makes it difficult for many managers to make bold bets. Investing mistakes may also be easier to swallow when everyone is in the same boat. There is comfort in conformity, but this innate social desire can create opportunities for those who have the courage to think independently.

Fear and greed may create herding behavior. Investors tend to chase performance, buying securities that have recently done well and selling those with poor performance. This may partially explain the short-term persistence in asset returns, known as momentum. Generally, assets that have outperformed over the past six to 12 months continue to outperform over the next several months, while those that have underperformed continue to do so. That might suggest that a contrarian strategy wouldn't work well. Indeed, trading against momentum has historically been a losing strategy.

Alex Bryan does not own (actual or beneficial) shares in any of the securities mentioned above. Find out about Morningstar’s editorial policies.