The Odds Favor the Contrarian Investor

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LOS ANGELES U.S.A. 18 December 2006 – Oh good…everything in the United States is still just as we remembered it. Of course, we aren’t really staying in Los Angeles. We’re just passing through on our way to South America. Dropping into the Qantas lounge, we find newspapers and CNBC that bring us up to date.

“I don’t see why anyone would worry,” said the host. “People were worrying about the slow-down in the housing sector. But now we find the employment numbers are surprisingly strong. And, as we heard from Alan Greenspan recently, if the housing slump hasn’t hurt us yet, it’s probably not going to hurt us at all. It looks like clear sailing, doesn’t it?”

 Her guest was a fellow named Becker. We missed his first name. Not Boris. Not Gary. Some other Becker.

He responded cautiously:

“Well, so far it does look as though housing is coming down in a soft landing, but we’ll have to wait and see what 2007 brings.”

If only we knew now! But we don’t. We’ll just have to wait and see, just as Mr. Becker says.

The trouble with waiting and seeing is that you can’t only wait and see. You also have to do something. You can’t stop breathing. You can’t stop eating. And you can’t stop investing. There is no such thing as suspended animation when it comes to your money; no such place as nowhere in the financial world. Every minute of every day…for every asset class…you are either long or you are short. Either you own it, or you don’t own it. Of course, you can be leveraged or unleveraged too…but that is merely a measure of how bad the damage will be if you are wrong. If you don’t own Google, for example, you will lose potential earnings if it goes up. And if it goes down, relative to the rest of the world – which includes Google holders – you will be ahead of the game.

You may say to yourself, ‘Oh…I’m staying out…I’m in cash.’ But that is merely an alternative investment position. When you are in cash, you are short stocks…and long the dollar (generally). If stocks go down…your cash goes up, relative to the stocks. If stocks go up…your cash – measured in stocks – becomes less valuable.

And what about the dollar itself? For most Americans, being ‘in cash’ means being in the cash printed up by the Bureau of Printing and Engraving and watched over by the central bank of Ben Bernanke. This year alone, that cash has gone down 10% against the cash of the European Central Bank. Against the ‘cash’ that comes out of the ground – gold – it has lost 20%. And in terms of consumer prices, cash is down too – about 3%, depending on whose estimate you believe.

No, there’s no way to stay out of it. There’s no refuge. There’s no place where history stands still and prices stop moving. No matter where you are, you’re in it whether you like it or not.

An American homeowner, for example, is long U.S. residential housing. He may want to be long for reasons that have nothing to do with finances; he may simply like his house and have no intention of giving it up. He may have no mortgage on it…and no intention to sell. If it goes down, what does he care?

But a lot of people are long residential real estate, highly leveraged, and getting desperate. Many are making bets they can’t afford to lose. Imagine the poor lump who bought a house last year – with no money down and a backwards-walking mortgage. He couldn’t quite afford the regular mortgage payments, so he took the ‘pay option’ plan. The difference between what he ought to pay and what he does pay is added to the principal. Well, at the end of 12 months, he has a bigger mortgage than he started with. And if his house went down in price, his mortgage may also be considerably more than the house is worth.

This poor fellow has no business speculating on housing prices. He may never have intended to do so. He may have wanted nothing more than a decent roof over his head. But now his financial future hangs on what happens next year in the housing market. He has to ‘wait and see,’ too. But he must be sitting on the edge of his chair. He’s long housing in a big way – he’s staked an amount greater than his entire net worth on it.

“Foreclosures up as borrowers fall behind,” says a headline in USA Today. Almost one in 20 mortgages are in arrears, says the paper, led by Mississippi, Louisiana…and Michigan.

And from California comes news that “Regional home prices grow at a sluggish pace…The median was up 1.7% last month from a year earlier, the smallest gain in nearly a decade.”

Meanwhile, more and more people seem to be long stocks. The Dow hit a new record high yesterday. Dow 36,000? Sure…why not?! But the Dow has done nothing compared to foreign markets. We were just in Bombay, where local stocks have gained an incredible 40% this year. North of the Himalayas, in Shanghai, stocks are up an unbelievable 95%.

Commodities are up too. The metals are soaring – gold, copper, aluminum – they have all gone up sharply this year

In fact, looking around the world, we find people almost everywhere long almost everything. Property prices are sky high in most parts of the world. Only Asuncion, Paraguay, seems to be bucking the general trend. What’s wrong with Asuncion? We don’t know…but we aim to find out.

That’s why we have issued a ‘Crash Alert.’ All over the planet, people are thinking the same thing – buy now, because assets only go up in price. But when everyone is thinking the same thing, no one is thinking at all. So, we think we will play it safe. We’ll take the other side of the trade. Not because we know anything, but simply because the odds now must favor the maverick, contrarian speculator who bets against further asset appreciation.

We just have to figure out what the other side of the trade is… Stay tuned.

Bill Bonner

Bill Bonner

Best-selling investment author Bill Bonner is the founder and president of Agora Publishing, one of the world's most successful consumer newsletter companies. Owner of both Fleet Street Publications and MoneyWeek magazine in the UK, he is also author of the free daily e-mail The Daily Reckoning.
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