The market reaction to the vaccine shows the value of contrarian thinking

As the vaccine news has shown, you don't have to think too far outside of the box to get ahead of the herd, says John Stepek.

Yesterday, we got news of another Covid-19 vaccine. 

This one is from Moderna. It uses a similar method to the Pfizer/BioNTech one but appears to be even better. It offers nearly 95% protection. And it doesn’t need to be stored at massively sub-zero temperatures.  

The usual caveat – this is early data. But it’s more good news and another sign that we’re getting there. Moderna wants to get regulatory approval in the US in the next few weeks and it hopes to have up to a billion doses ready for use next year.  

(By the way, our very own Matthew Partridge tipped Moderna way back in April, as the coronavirus was raging around the globe. The share price has just about doubled since then. That’ll have more than paid for a subscription to MoneyWeek for any readers who took advantage. If you don’t already read the magazine, you can get your first six issues free here).

The market reaction was understandably cheerful. It was basically a less exuberant version of what happened when Pfizer mentioned their vaccine.  

It gives a good pointer as to what’ll happen once we’re free and clear of this virus. The “recovery” trade is already starting to be priced into markets, but the sorts of stocks and assets that are benefiting have been so despised for so long – banks and oil, need I say more? – that I suspect there are a lot more gains to be had as and when confidence in the recovery accelerates.  

The value of contrarian thought

What’s most interesting here to me is not so much the excitement as the trepidation. The news of the Pfizer vaccine was greeted with much joy. But almost immediately, fear set in. 

The results seemed hard to argue with. So immediately, the pessimists started to argue (on the flimsiest of survey evidence) that not enough people will take it. Others rushed in to tell us all to calm down, as though we might fling open the door and smear ourselves on the nearest neighbour in an unseemly rush for freedom. 

There are lots of reasons for this caution, some of it well-meaning, some of it plain, old self-important control freak-ery.

But underlying it all is a simple psychological reality: the capacity of human beings to become accustomed to the unthinkable is quite staggering. It’s a useful survival trait, but like most survival traits, it’s a double-edged sword. 

We have a tendency to assume that tomorrow will be like today. So we’ve gone from finding it hard to believe that our economies could ever be shut down, to struggling with the idea of them ever reopening. 

This human tendency to get surprisingly quickly used to the present and to extrapolate it far into the future is one of the reasons that momentum investing (buying what’s going up, and selling what’s going down) works so well. People keep betting that what worked today will work tomorrow. 

This compounds with our herding instinct – we don’t like to disagree with the crowd, because the crowd might turn on us (spend five minutes on Twitter for proof). And this is all made a lot more instinctive when issues such as life or death, and hygiene, are thrown into the mix. 

However, the tendency to extrapolate is the reason that contrarian investing (buying what's utterly detested) works well too. Because, eventually, it turns out that tomorrow can be different to today. When that happens, the cheap out-of-favour stuff can make an extremely rapid comeback.   

So, you honestly don’t have to think that far outside the box to be more imaginative than your average investor. And if you can do that – if you can envision a world of tomorrow where the assumptions of today turn out to be wrong – then you’ll be able to position your portfolio to take advantage of events that surprise the wider market. 

(And if you’re interested in reading more on the psychology of this stuff and what it means for your investment strategy, I released a book about it last year – The Sceptical Investor.)

Recommended

Expect more turbulence as the market calls central bankers’ bluff
Stockmarkets

Expect more turbulence as the market calls central bankers’ bluff

With bond yields climbing and stockmarkets sliding, markets are hoping central bankers will step in again to repress interest rates – but that won’t …
26 Feb 2021
The MoneyWeek Podcast: strategic metals, the commodities supercycle and the electrified future
Commodities

The MoneyWeek Podcast: strategic metals, the commodities supercycle and the electrified future

John Stepek talks to Dr Paul Jourdan, CEO of Amati Global Investors, about investing in the metals needed for the post-oil electrified world, the impo…
26 Feb 2021
Our trade of the decade came good – what’s next?
Investment strategy

Our trade of the decade came good – what’s next?

Back in 2010 we said you should invest in unloved and undervalued Japanese stocks. If you had done that, you’d have made a nice return. So what should…
25 Feb 2021
Great frauds in history: Helmut Kiener, Germany’s mini-Madoff
People

Great frauds in history: Helmut Kiener, Germany’s mini-Madoff

The performance of Helmut Kiener’s fund of funds, which invested money from institutions and private investors into hedge funds, seemed too good to be…
25 Feb 2021

Most Popular

Are we heading for another bond market tantrum?
Government bonds

Are we heading for another bond market tantrum?

The last time the US central bank tried tightening the purse strings, the bond markets threw a tantrum. With yields now rising, could we be about to s…
25 Feb 2021
Expect more turbulence as the market calls central bankers’ bluff
Stockmarkets

Expect more turbulence as the market calls central bankers’ bluff

With bond yields climbing and stockmarkets sliding, markets are hoping central bankers will step in again to repress interest rates – but that won’t …
26 Feb 2021
Invest in water and provide a buffer against future pandemics
Soft commodities

Invest in water and provide a buffer against future pandemics

Global water shortages have long hampered growth and development, and climate change has exacerbated the problem. Will the coronavirus pandemic be a t…
25 Feb 2021