Contrarian Trading & Investment Strategies

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Written By
Contributor Image
Written By
Dan Buckley
Dan Buckley is an US-based trader, consultant, and part-time writer with a background in macroeconomics and mathematical finance. He trades and writes about a variety of asset classes, including equities, fixed income, commodities, currencies, and interest rates. As a writer, his goal is to explain trading and finance concepts in levels of detail that could appeal to a range of audiences, from novice traders to those with more experienced backgrounds.

Contrarian trading and investment strategies involve going against prevailing market trends or sentiments.

This approach is based on the belief that markets often overreact to news and create mispriced securities.

Contrarian investors seek to capitalize on these inefficiencies.


Key Takeaways – Contrarian Trading & Investment Strategies

  • Contrarian trading and investment strategies involve going against prevailing market trends.
    • Examples: Buying undervalued assets and selling overvalued assets. Trimming stock allocations as stocks rise and increasing them when stocks fall.
  • Often relies on fundamental analysis to gauge true asset value.
  • An institutional investor, in general, is more likely to view assets that went up in terms of being more expensive and having a compressed risk premium.
  • A retail trader, on the other hand, tends to think more in terms of what went up as being better and extrapolate that forward.


Theory Behind Contrarian Strategies

Contrarian strategies are often viewed in the context of behavioral finance, which examines how psychological influences and biases affect the financial behaviors of traders/investors and markets.

Key principles include:

Overreaction and Correction

Markets often overreact to news, both good and bad, leading to asset mispricing.

Mean Reversion

Over time, some prices tend to return to their historical averages.

This is more common for certain types of commodities (when inflation-adjusted) and interest rates.

They tend to go through cycles but without drift (unlike equities).

For example, oil tends to not be too high or too low for long.

Interest rates also tend to not stay too high or too low forever.

Many quantitative models are based on mean-reverting behavior (e.g., Vasicek model for interest rates).

Herd Behavior

Many traders follow market trends and are momentum-driven, creating opportunities for contrarians when these trends reverse.


Identifying Contrarian Opportunities

Contrarians often use sentiment indicators to gauge whether an asset is overbought (overly popular) or oversold (unjustifiably ignored).

These indicators include:

Put-Call Ratio

High values may indicate a bearish market sentiment.

This is a potential buy signal for contrarians.

Short Interest

A high level of short interest might suggest that a stock is ripe for a rebound.

News and Analyst Ratings

Pessimistic news or analyst downgrades can sometimes signal a contrarian buy opportunity.


Fundamental Analysis

Contrarians perform in-depth fundamental analysis to identify undervalued or overvalued assets.

This involves examining:

Financial Health

Analyzing balance sheets, income statements, and cash flow statements.

Valuation Metrics

Evaluating price-to-earnings ratios, book values, and other valuation measures and financial metrics.


Risks and Challenges


Entering a position too early can lead to significant losses if the market continues to move against the contrarian view.

Contrarian strategies can be risky during strong, persistent market trends.

Betting against a strong uptrend or downtrend can lead to losses if the trend continues longer than anticipated.

And, for example, if a company is earning more over time, then an upward trend in its stock price could be entirely justified.

Market Efficiency

In efficient markets, finding mispriced assets is more challenging, and the opportunities for contrarian gains are reduced.


Implementing Contrarian Strategies

Portfolio Diversification

Contrarians should diversify their investments to mitigate risks.

This involves spreading investments across various sectors, asset classes, and geographical regions.

Risk Management

Risk management – e.g., diversification, options to limit tail risk – helps limit losses if the market moves against the contrarian position.

Patience and Discipline

Contrarian investing requires a patient and disciplined approach.

It often involves going against prevailing market sentiments and waiting for the market to recognize an asset’s true value.

For long-duration asset classes in particular (e.g., equities) this can take a very long time.


What Type of Market Participants Are Contrarians (and Not Contrarians)?

The distinction between “contrarian” and other investment approaches, such as momentum-driven strategies, often depends on the:

  • investment horizon
  • risk tolerance, and
  • primary objectives of the market participants

Pension Funds – Inherently Contrarian Due to Allocation Mandates

Pension funds – as well as endowments, foundations, and sovereign wealth funds – typically have long-term investment horizons and are driven by the need to manage risks while ensuring steady returns over decades.

This long-term perspective aligns with a more contrarian approach.

Their investment strategies often involve maintaining a specific asset allocation that balances stocks, bonds, and other asset classes according to predefined mandates.

When a particular asset class outperforms and becomes a larger portion of the portfolio than intended, pension funds may sell portions of it (despite its recent success) to rebalance back to the target allocation.

Similarly, they might buy more of an underperforming asset class to maintain the balance.

This rebalancing is contrarian in nature as it involves selling assets that have appreciated (against the prevailing bullish trend) and buying assets that have depreciated (against the prevailing bearish trend).

Retail Traders – Tendency Towards Momentum Trading

Retail traders, in contrast, often have shorter investment horizons and may be more focused on capitalizing on current market trends.

Many retail traders engage in momentum trading.

This means buying assets that have been performing well in the expectation that their upward price movement will continue.

Conversely, they might sell or avoid assets that are currently on a downtrend.

Basically an overall tendency to hop on whatever is “hot.”

This approach is less about seeking value in underpriced assets and more about riding the waves of market sentiment and trends.

Retail traders may be more reactive to recent market news and trends.

This makes their approach more aligned with momentum strategies rather than contrarian strategies.

Institutional traders often engage in momentum trading as well, but it’s generally done as an algorithmic strategy.

Example: US Markets vs. Chinese Markets

US markets are heavily influenced by institutional investors like pension funds and hedge funds, which often adopt a contrarian approach.

They (categorically) tend to focus on long-term value and rebalancing strategies. 

In contrast, some Asian markets, notably China’s, are characterized by a stronger retail investor presence.

Retail traders typically engage in momentum trading, reacting quickly to market trends and news.

This tends to drive more short-term, trend-based market movements.

This distinction in investor composition leads to a more contrarian-driven market in the US and a momentum-driven market in parts of Asia.

A Matter of Philosophy

The fundamental difference lies in the investment philosophy:

  • contrarian investors like pension funds seek value in underpriced assets and are willing to go against the market sentiment, while
  • momentum traders, including many retail traders, follow the current trends, seeking profits from continuing movements in the market’s direction

The contrarian approach requires an understanding of market fundamentals and cycles, along with a high level of discipline and patience, as it often involves going against prevailing market sentiment and waiting for the market to recognize the true value of the underpriced assets.

In contrast, momentum trading is more about capitalizing on the market’s current trajectory.


How Can I Become More Contrarian in My Approach?

The simplest method to adopt a contrarian approach is to periodically rebalance your portfolio.

This helps align it with your target asset allocation.

At the same time, carefully consider transaction costs and tax implications.