At a time When > gold and emerging markets are parts of everyday portfolios and almost all risk assets seem to move in lockstep, investors of every size are scratching their heads over a cloyingly simple question: What s contrarian now?> What are the assets, sectors and securities just beginning to emerge that the herd will be piling into a few months or quarters down the line?
Of course, we never know with certainty. Still, my interest is triggered by two distinct signs: legitimately bullish price action and the clear absence of public interest.
Apple is strong, but it s all over the news nearly every day. The same goes for Brazil and other Latin American markets. Popularity doesn t mean their rallies won t continue, but the fact that they re so actively followed makes them at least to me unattractive for new money.
At the other end of the spectrum, you don t hear a thing about Japan s sogo shosha, the multi-national conglomerates with vast holdings in energy, logistics, manufacturing, aerospace, food and finance I wrote about earlier this year. After an initial rally, the sector was crushed this summer, thanks to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that roiled BP. Mitsui & Co., one of the largest sogo shosha, owns a 10% interest in the company. It might be hard to recall now, but for three months, the negative headlines (not to mention the live spill-cam were relentlessly dismal. Shares of Mitsui dropped 35% in four months, dragging many other names like Sumitomo Corp., Mitsubishi and Itochu with it.
Sometimes we aren t wrong just early. And with nary a message board posting or tweet, the sector has quietly recouped those losses to challenge new yearly highs. Although many stocks have made similar recoveries recently, sogo shosha have what others don t: zero interest from the herd.
So where do you> think the herd is? I'll give you a hint. Mitsui has had a total of four Yahoo (YHOO)
, but although the remaining handful are multi-billion firms, they trade only modest volumes on the pink sheets.
Yet it's difficult to argue with performance. Itochu, a Fortune 500 company with 700 subsidiaries in textiles, aerospace, energy, chemicals and food, now sits at a new yearly high despite a slack 0.34 correlation to the S&P 500. Mitsubishi, with its 50,000 employees in over 80 countries, ranks 153 on the Financial Times s list of the world s biggest companies, ahead of Ford, Morgan Stanley, eBay and Deere. And Sumitomo, which trades with a 0.52 correlation to the S&P 500, holds assets as varied as movie theaters, insurance firms and satellites and has operations in more than 115 countries including many of the Southeast Asian emerging markets attracting so much U.S. attention.
The fact many of these names are comparatively less liquid than U.S. conglomerates probably dissuades many investors, but that lack of trading activity can actually be a bullish sign. As we wrote earlier this year, Roger Ibbotson s research has demonstrated a significant advantage over time for stocks that trade with a liquidity discount. American Beacon Zebra Large Cap Equity and American Beacon Zebra Small Cap Equity, the two mutual funds that use the strategy, are beating the S&P 500 (although neither hold
As speculators, we are paid to take on risk. And despite the fact that it s comfortable to focus on the stocks and securities everybody s talking about, history suggests you re most often rewarded by doing the hard thing, including tapping into the harder-to-attain exposures for which there is no pr t-a-porter fund. Back in 2001, for example, most of today s options for gold investment didn t exist. Now, SPDR Gold Trust is the country s second biggest ETF with larger holdings than many European governments.
Japan s sogo shosha continue to demonstrate a notable lack of buzz or interest, despite the increasingly bullish price action and long list of fundamentally attractive assets. For those willing to look slightly beyond the immediacy of what s popular now, these off-the-radar names might end up being a contrarian idea that goes mainstream.
Jonathan Hoenig is managing member at > Capitalistpig Hedge Fund LLC . At the time of writing, Hoenig s fund held positions in many of the securities mentioned.>