The Top 5 Contrarian Reads of the Week

For all that is written on the topic, the key to beating the market can be boiled down to a single concept: variant perception. In order to earn a return that is different than the market average, you need to do different things, based on views that are different from the consensus. Here are some of the best contrarian articles I read this week.

How a correction could occur
Jeremy Grantham, the chief investment strategist of asset manager GMO, is one of the great contrarians who write freely on investing. If you're not up for reading his most recent quarterly letter [free registration required] in its entirety, InvestmentNews does a nice job of "packaging" 10 views contained in the letter, including the following:

If GDP growth drops unexpectedly, corporations might easily be caught [budgeting incorrectly] or over-expanding [although this current ultra-cautious U.S. corporate system, which only reluctantly makes capital investments, is unlikely to be caught out too badly], and perhaps more importantly investors may be shocked by continuous revenue warnings, which might cause the market to sell-off.

Junk bonds
As mentioned here, it appears the view that junk bonds are overpriced is becoming the consensus among the "smart money." The Financial Times' John Dizard is a dissenting voice. In "There is a Rational Basis for Buying Junk" [free registration required], he writes:

The economies in the US and Europe, where you find corporate high yield bond issuers, are not in a frothy, excited, state. They're in stagnation. The markets reflect this with low volatility. That signals slow social decline, but a lower probability of financial crashes. Historically, corporate credit spreads are linked not so much to equity market price levels as equity volatility levels.

Nevertheless, shareholders of the iShares iBoxx $High Yield Corporate Bond Fund ETF (NYSEMKT: HYG  ) or the SPDR Barclays High Yield Bond ETF (NYSEMKT: JNK  ) should take heed that these products, due to their size, cannot own the best opportunities in the sector. As Dizard notes:

While the large junk bond ETFs (exchange-traded funds) and junk mutual funds have gobbled up the relative large issues, they have much less demand for smaller junk bond issues. There are fewer of these than there were a few years ago, but lacking big buy tickets from large ETFs or institutions, they can often be underpriced relative to their real credit risk.

For more on the structural problems affecting junk-bond ETFs, read my Friday column.

Ketchup on the pundits' faces?
Berkshire Hathaway
's (NYSE: BRK-B  ) announcement last week that it is taking H. J. Heinz (UNKNOWN: HNZ.DL  ) private, in partnership with Brazilian-backed investment firm 3G Capital in a deal valued at $28 billion, precipitated much chatter. Commentators were quick to remark that the deal reflects the growing confidence in executive boardrooms and augurs the start of a merger and acquisition boom. Alice Schroeder, Buffett's official biographer, struck a more cautious tone in her commentary for the Financial Times [free registration required]:

When Mr Buffett made investments such as in Coca-Cola in the 1980s, he was happy to make unprotected bets on growth. Berkshire never bit on Heinz until now, when a deal arrived with terms that guarantee it a 6 per cent return. In a world of near-zero interest rates, that 6 per cent looks pretty attractive. Mr Buffett, evidently, does not expect rates to rise sharply any time soon. A decade ago, he demanded a first-day return of 13 per cent before he would bother to consider a deal. Now the Oracle takes 6 per cent for his money. We should pay attention. There could hardly be a stronger signal that the investing tide has changed.

Similarly, the Financial Times' John Authers is unconvinced [free registration required] that this deal signals a vote of confidence from Buffett on a near-term rebound in the economy:

We already know from that deal [Berkshire's 2009 acquisition of railroad operator Burlington Northern Santa Fe] that Mr Buffett is bullish about the US economy. But Heinz is almost the opposite. Come recession or boom, people will eat ketchup and baked beans. Obesity seems unaffected by the economy, so the Weight Watchers brand also appears to be an economically durable business. Its "beta" to the market, at 0.58, is very low. This company appeals because of its imperviousness to external conditions, not as a play on the economy.

Enjoy your weekend, contrarian Fools!

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