Hit ‘Em Where They Ain’t

When Wee Willie Keeler – the diminutive Hall of Fame baseball player of the early 1900s – was asked about the secret to his hitting success, Keeler replied, "Keep your eye clear, and hit 'em where they ain't."

Keeler's advice is commonsense baseball: You get on base if you hit the ball to the open field. Of course, the devil is in the details, or should I say the execution. Hitting the ball to the open field is much more difficult in practice than in speech.

Keeler's insight also applies to investing. We're familiar with the concept of contrarian investing – that is, investing against the crowd (or in Keeler's world, investing “where other investors ain't”). 

Many of you are familiar with the success of famed contrarians (Carl Icahn, Warren Buffett and George Soros come immediately to mind) who've built great fortunes investing where many investors were unwilling to go.  

Successful contrarian investing is premised on keeping your eye clear for low-cost-basis stocks. A low cost basis is frequently a byproduct of business difficulty that has sent many investors to the exit. 

I broach this subject because of the recent hard sell in Apple Inc. (NASDAQ: AAPL). Apple was the stock everyone had to be in. It was the comfortable investment. It was the “sure thing.” It was the stock every security analyst could take to his investment manager and be assured of keeping his job. It was where everyone was. 

As we've subsequently learned, there is no sure thing. Apple shares have been hit and hit hard, losing 48% of their value since late September.  This is the price investors pay for “hitting 'em” where everyone else is.   

But hitting 'em were they ain't is often difficult, if not painful. It's more comfortable psychologically to invest with the crowd, which is why there are few genuine contrarian investors. To persuade an investor to go this way when most everyone else is going the other way is one of the great conundrums in investment advisory.

I know from experience. I receive the most e-mails when I wander off the beaten path. Many investors fitfully question my rationale; a few even question my sanity. 

The truth is, some of my more profitable investing successes have been some of my biggest contrarian investments. 

Omega Healthcare Investors (NYSE: OHI) comes immediately to mind. 

A year ago, few investors wanted to own this long-term care REIT. Unrelenting chatter that government payments to long-term providers would be slashed, thus lowering the value of Omega's properties, kept many investors away. But just a cursory analysis revealed that was unlikely.

Omega has subsequently returned over 50% to the High Yield Wealth portfolio. 

I found similar opportunities in Total SA (NYSE: TOT) and Altria (NYSE: MO). Total's shares experienced an unreasonable sell-off after a gas leak was discovered at one of its North Sea offshore drilling platforms. Altria shares sold off when the federal government threatened to impose macabre warning labels on cigarette packs.  

Again, a cursory analysis showed investor reaction was extreme compared to the risk involved. Total has since returned 20% and Altria 32% to the High Yield Wealth portfolio. 

I've received the most e-mails on another hit-‘em-where-they-ain't contrarian investment – BGC Partners (NASDAQ: BGCP), an institutional securities and real estate broker. I'm still relatively alone in the stock, but my analysis of its business convinces me that I'm not going to be standing alone for long. 

To hit 'em where they ain't in investing is also to hit 'em where they are going to be. I say that because there are really only two types of companies: ones that have trouble and ones that are going to have trouble. 

Most investors prefer to invest in companies that are going to have trouble (that would be Apple). I prefer to invest in companies that are having trouble, because it gives me a better chance of hitting 'em where they ain't before they become stocks where investors are hitting 'em where they are.

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