How to be a contrarian investor

  • To understand how a contrarian approach to equity investment works.
  • To be able to list five things to consider when looking for contrarian investments.
  • To recognise the potential profile of performance with a contrarian investment style.
How to be a contrarian investor

A contrarian equity investor looks to buy and sell stocks in contrast to the prevailing market sentiment.

This is in the belief that the tendency towards crowd behaviour among investors leads to the mispricing of stocks – providing the opportunity for the contrarian to generate superior returns over time.

The contrarian believes that stocks can go in and out of fashion and can become under or over appreciated by investors due as much to cyclicality as to structural or fundamental issues. As such, contrarian investing is often counter-intuitive in nature.

The recent fashion in equity markets has been towards a momentum style, driven by passive investment flows. Markets have enjoyed an upward trajectory since their low point in 2009 thanks in the main to the availability of cheap money and low returns for savers elsewhere.

Cost effective passive or index tracking strategies have been popular while active investing has been roundly criticised for some time. With career security in mind, professional active managers have faced a disincentive to stray too far from their benchmarks - the result quite often being index-like returns at a considerably higher cost than passive funds can offer.

Pressure to perform often leads to short-termism and the compulsion to act rather than wait for a thesis to play out.

A contrarian approach, however, is a highly active and differentiated investment style that seeks to provide above average returns over the longer term by employing the opposite approach used in passive investing.

It enjoys the advantage of being active, but is not measured in tracking errors or overweight and underweight allocations. It allows the freedom to look closely at those stocks that the rest of the market is ignoring.

Crowd behaviour and investor biases

We have all heard the axiom that investors should ‘buy low and sell high’. This seems, on the face of it, to be a simple enough directive however it is, in-fact, extremely hard to do.

The desire to be part of the winning group or to follow the crowd is hardwired into our DNA – a ‘survival instinct’ - and while extremely useful historically, it can be counter-productive in financial markets where investors end up chasing a trend, but never beating it.

For the majority, this is also where financial losses can result. It is exceptionally difficult to perfect the timing of purchases and sales.

A contrarian strategy attempts to avoid the overblown trades prevalent during pricing bubbles, caused by the indiscriminate crowding of capital.

Exponents of contrarianism should be less exposed to the stocks most vulnerable to profit taking or panic selling in the event of a crisis of confidence or market correction.

Just as it may provide lower downside risk, this style of investing seeks out ideas that should have greater upside relative to already successful and highly valued shares. 


Please answer the six multiple choice questions below in order to bank your CPD. Multiple attempts are available until all questions are correctly answered.

  1. What does Mr McKinnon say contrarian investing is, in nature?

  2. Which of the following is NOT listed by Mr McKinnon as one of the three things by which contrarian investment is NOT measured?

  3. According to Mr McKinnon, what does a contrarian investment approach attempt to do?

  4. What does the contrarian [investor] challenge, according to Mr McKinnon?

  5. Because contrarian stock picks can be uncomfortable, what does Mr McKinnon advise?

  6. What should a contrarian investor do if things do not go right, according to Mr McKinnon?

Nearly There…

You have successfully answered all the questions correctly, well done!

You should now know…

  • To understand how a contrarian approach to equity investment works.
  • To be able to list five things to consider when looking for contrarian investments.
  • To recognise the potential profile of performance with a contrarian investment style.

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