You've got to give credit to David W. Tice's Prudent Bear Fund.
The $379 million fund, which aims to prosper when the stock market doesn't, via such means as short-selling and owning gold shares, frequently turns in better results than the stock indexes might lead us to expect.
Look at its record for the past year. While the Standard & Poor's 500-stock index has posted a positive return of 11 percent, the Prudent Bear Fund has declined a mere 4.8 percent, according to Bloomberg data.
Over the past three years, Prudent Bear has declined just 5.8 percent a year, while the S&P 500 has returned 10.3 percent per annum. In the past five years, the fund boasts a 12.9 percent annualized gain, compared with the S&P 500's 2.8 percent per-year loss.
In the upside-down world of bear market funds, this stands as market-beating performance. However much the S&P 500 rises or falls, the aggregate results of those who bet against it would figure to be about the same in the opposite direction. Maybe worse than that, once costs are factored in. Tice has done a lot better.
The trouble is, even with this display of acumen, the Prudent Bear Fund hasn't been a consistent money-maker over the long haul. Approaching its 10th birthday, the fund shows a net loss as measured by Bloomberg data of 3.4 percent a year from the end of 1995 through July.
Admittedly, the intervening years have included a mighty bull market. They also have encompassed the worst sustained market decline in three decades (the "tech wreck" of 2000 to 2002), plus the Asian currency crisis of 1997, the Russian default of 1998, the terrorist attacks of September 2001 and assorted other bear-boosting adversities.
Through all this muck and mire the S&P 500 produced a net gain averaging 9.3 percent -- right smack in the middle of its historical average of 9 to 10 percent a year.
The past 10 years demonstrate that even in the midst of turmoil on the world stage, you can wear yourself out trying to make money betting against the stock market.
Short sellers, who sell borrowed stock in hopes of buying it back later at a lower price, have long been a small and specialized breed. With their image as mavericks who brave risks most ordinary people don't want to face, they make far better media heroes than bulls who follow a naturally rising market. Where's the bravado, the romance, in going with the flow?
One problem with classic short-selling is that the potential loss is unlimited when a trade goes wrong. While a simple long position risks a 100 percent loss at most, there is no theoretical limit to how much damage a rising stock can inflict on a short-seller.
Another negative is the considerable costs associated with borrowing stock. Even dividend payments, which the short seller must make good on the borrowed shares, work against you.
Some of these problems can be addressed with alternative vehicles such as puts, or options that give their owners the right to sell a given security at a stated price.
But no bear strategy can avoid the biggest drawback of counter-market investing. Because of the natural tendency of economies to grow over time, you are (choose your metaphor) sailing always into the wind, shoveling sand against the tide, rolling your rock uphill.
The challenge has only been compounded by the rising popularity of long-short and market-neutral strategies for managing money. With the collapse of the 1990s bull market, many people became disillusioned with simple long-only investing.
Let's get smart, they reasoned, and give ourselves a fighting chance in all kinds of markets by playing the game from both sides.
Before you could say "absolute return," hedge funds had ballooned to a $1 trillion business. To the extent that this signifies more people engaged in short-selling, it promises that success on the short side will become even harder than it already is. If you're looking for easy money, try something else.