Long before financier Malcolm Forbes aimed a handful of darts at stock exchange listings to pick a winning portfolio, the nation's most innovative investors often veered toward unconventional strategies.
Like folks leaning on the finish-line rail at the track, they are convinced their system is foolproof. Some rationalize that the stars, or Elvis nostalgia, or geometric cylinders explain the ups and downs of the Dow. Washington-based investment analyst Douglas Casey searches for "blood in the streets" to apply his crisis-investing strategy.
"An investor would be foolish to follow religiously the advice of any unconventional source -- or any conventional source for that matter," says George Wein, president of Select Information Exchange (SIE), a Manhattan firm that promotes and rates unconventional investment newsletters. "It's up to the individual to separate the wheat from the chaff."
Wein, a former securities salesman at E.F. Hutton, says there are hundreds of off-beat and obscure investment theories, many tracked by SIE. "Some of the more conventional ones were on the bottom," he says. "And some of the real nuts were on top."
Because income tax day can make many of us aware of what seems like a singular lack of creativity in the money department, here is a sampling of inspiration -- nothing guaranteed -- from some unconventional investors and advisers: Investolator
In the early 1930s, Ted Warren labored in a Ford Motor factory in Seattle for $5 a day. With only a sixth grade education, he was "so dumb I didn't have anything to unlearn -- I was a hick then."
By 1940, at age 37, Warren retired. He has lived off the stock market ever since.
"Maybe I was a little smarter than the average hick," he says from his Redondo Beach, Calif., home where he works on the Ted Warren Investolator Market Letter, which defies and defiles Wall Street wisdom.
"I learned to beat the crooks at their own game," boasts Warren, referring to the stockbrokers he repeatedly castigates as "glorified clerks."
While still a factory worker, Warren took night classes in reading stock charts and developed his ornery approach to investment. "I advise that you ignore all the fundamentals. When a stock goes down and down and looks like a dead-beat dog, that's when to buy it."
Indeed, more than 15 years of Warren's iconoclastic grumblings have left a record of consistent profit for investors, says Wein, who tracked Warren's forecasts.
Warren published his "famous list of 140 stocks" -- all dead dogs -- in 1974: "They averaged over 400 percent in five years."
Originally distributing his message free, Warren started charging when he "learned people were saying it couldn't be much good if it didn't cost anything." Today, an annual subscription to the Investolator -- a name he concocted by combining "investor" and "speculator" -- costs $100. Long-term followers "who've made enough money that they can afford more" pay $200 a year. Subscriptions have climbed to 400 -- all of whom, he says, should be better prepared for the "tough times" ahead.
"We've got," he intones, "the same repetition as in the '20s that led up to the Crash." My prediction is it'll hit 3000 on the Dow, and then crash -- next year or in '88 maybe." Cheap Investor
"I'm not motivated by money," claims Bill Mathews of Northlake, Ill. The Triton College professor of investment hands out hot market tips but keeps his own cash in his pocket. He says it's unethical to do otherwise.
After five years of chalking his theories on a blackboard, Mathews put them to the test in 1981. He formed Mathews and Associates Inc. and began distributing Cheap Investor, a $78-a-year monthly newsletter that has attracted 6,000 subscribers.
"Wall Street doesn't like a company when it's down," says Mathews, 33. "We jump on it at $1 or $2 or $3. Wall Street jumps on at $10. We buy things it doesn't want, betting the stock'll catch on and people will buy it."
So far, the strategy has proven a good bet. To parody Wall Street's Blue Chip Index, Mathews listed 27 stocks that were considered losers and called them The Blue Sheep Index. "On a daily basis, it has beaten the Dow 35 out of 54 months," he says. "We're up 254 to the Dow's 115 over those months.
"What is so ironic is these 27 companies all were losing money -- and all under $10 a share. You might have heard of Telex. In August '81, it was at $4.50 a share and Wall Street didn't want it. But at $70 a share recently it was on every buy list."
This year, Mathews has especially liked Chapter 11 companies -- those filing for bankruptcy.
"Most people think a company that goes into bankruptcy goes under," he says. "That's a fallacy. When they come out of a Chapter 11, they've cut their company down to the bone, cut all the fat off, and it is going to be very easy to turn around the balance sheet."
He offers a prime example: No one wanted Chrysler at $4 a share, but at $45 everybody wants it.
How can Mathews resist cashing in on his own tips?
"We're making a good living off Cheap Investor," he says unconvincingly, before adding, "it's the game." Famous Silver Baron
Elliott Pearson woke up from a restless night in New York City and said to himself, "This isn't the same town I was born in anymore." He packed his bags and headed west to Reno.
That was three years ago.
Today, Pearson calls himself The World Famous Silver Baron. "After you're in business a little while, you attach 'world famous' to yourself and people say, 'Oh, yes, I've heard of you.' "
At a time when the gold and silver market was the pits, Pearson, 60, decided to "go out and look at mines to see which are real and which aren't" and report his findings to investors.
His qualifications? "I'd done a lot of things -- worked for National Airlines and for an insurance company, but was always investing."
The going was tough at first. Pearson scraped around in a dozen mines, wondering if his efforts were in vain. Then success: "a silver mine at 37 cents a share. And it went up to $5.50 over six months."
Pearson says he found other winners -- opportunities at 12 to 16 cents that people have to hold onto for awhile. "If they want action," he says, "they should be at the track."
Subscribers to his $125 newsletter "were clamoring for more winners," Pearson says. "I said, 'Can't give them too many in this bad metals market' -- and, besides, who wants to stomp around in mines in Montana in the winter?"
In March, Pearson began publishing a second newsletter called Stocks USA, expanding his audience to 1,400. "That gave me any field to explore for winners," he says, explaining that now he also drops in on small corporations that are little known or just getting started.
"What I didn't know when I started was this is a game," says Pearson, a quick study in self-promotion. Since late 1984, his weekly call-in TV show on a San Jose financial channel has been a hit. And he has forecast his way onto frequent CBS affiliate news programs.
As Pearson says, his tips aren't the sole secret to his success: "I caught on." On the Contrary
Four years ago, Xerox stock had dropped in value from $160 a decade earlier to $30 a share. Word on the Street was that Japanese competition was ruining the company.
"We started buying then," says Jim Fraser, who calls Xerox a classic example of what Contrarians -- those who buy and sell against the grain -- look for in an investment.
"Its a big company and you know it's going to be around," explains Fraser. "You don't have to visit it. You just have to make a case that the bad news has been coming out for so long the stock will finally bottom itself out."
Today, Xerox is holding its own at $65 a share and Fraser's investment management company in Burlington, Vt., is sitting on 120,000 shares.
"Now our problem will be deciding when is there enough good news to sell?" says Fraser, 55, a prote'ge' of Humphrey Neill, a Contrarian guru of the 1960s.
Fraser had a Wall Street history -- a few years with Citicorp and a major brokerage firm -- before trading in its philosophy and location. "We're in Burlington to avoid the mass psychosis of Wall Street," deadpans Fraser about the herd impulses Contrarians believe fuel investment madness.
"People as a rule don't look at the contrary side of questions, because they get carried away with the crowd. And when everybody thinks alike, everybody is likely to be wrong. The market pendulum tends to swing between fear on one extreme and greed on the other."
Fraser, who has been touting the Contrarian theory since 1962, says finding good values that aren't popular has become increasingly difficult as Contrarians theories gain greater acceptance. Fraser's respected biweekly newsletter, The Contrary Investor, regularly reaches brokers' offices. And, he says, never have more "conventional thinkers" attended his annual Contrarian conference at Basin Harbor on Lake Champlain in search of Contrarian insights. Ask him what's a good investment and he'll talk about what looks bad.
But he is quick to add true Contrarians aren't "trying to be contrary for contrary's sake. We're contrary in the creative sense. It's only logical." Elliott Waves
Except for a stint in a rock 'n' roll band, Robert Prechter has a conventional background -- Yale '71 and Merrill Lynch on Wall Street.
Although Wall Street hasn't quite embraced Prechter's investment analysis using the Elliott Wave Theory, it has given him a nod and a wink. He did, after all, stand virtually alone in forecasting the current hyper-bull market, hammering away at investors since June 1984, to buy heavily in stocks.
Fifteen months later, when the Dow had indeed climbed to 1300, Prechter was still hounding investors to buy while most brokers were slowing down clients, expecting the inevitable downturn. The Dow recently has raced over 1700 and Prechter says it will still rise -- as high as 3600 in the late 1980s.
His accuracy has promoted him to the financial spotlight. Business Week reported last month that ". . . nobody scoffs at Prechter's erudite monthly, The Elliott Wave Theorist. His stock market forecasts have been uncannily correct." Nation's Business noted last fall: "You might keep in mind the opinion of Robert R. Prechter."
Based on the 1930s theories of an obscure accountant named R.N. Elliott, the Wave Principle is a mathematically derived description of how markets behave due to mass investor psychology. It is the swings in investor optimism and pessimism that create patterns in stock price movements.
Writes Prechter in one mailing: "Over the years the Wave Principle has had a profound effect on a small coterie of investors who . . . have the ability to appreciate the esthetic beauty of the human experience in the abstract. It has fascinated philosophers, mathematicians, psychologists, theologians and financiers alike."
Indeed, there is more to Prechter's product than a $233-a-year investment method. Besides charts and graphs that interpret The Wave Principle, he drops in the touches of personal philosophy, elegant prose and even regular haiku.
In his Sept. 30 issue, he revealed a motivation beyond the dollar: "Much of the time the markets are in mid-trend, and the technical signs are drifting in darkness. You watch, and suddenly a wave pattern completes, the indicators flash, and a turn is at hand. That brief beautiful image is what the joy of market analysis is all about."
Prechter's own promotion -- as slick as his market predictions -- rejoices in its unconventionality. "Traditional? No. Unorthodox? Absolutely," boasts one of his promos.
Prechter, 36, recently published a special report titled, "Popular Culture and the Stock Market." In it he proposes that "major historic events like a great stock bull market or crash" are the result of mass mood changes that have already occurred. Certain trends of popular culture in 1985 pointed to "higher stock prices" and a "full-fledged speculative surge."
Do high hemlines mean a high trading on the market?
They do, says Prechter. He reads the development of the American cinema the way brokers read ticker tape and says, "Pop music has been virtually in lock step" with the Dow. "An undercurrent of happy pop music" from 1982 to now should soon "explode on the scene as the dominant style," he says. The message "is that a full-fledged speculative bull market in mood is preparing to emerge." He said that a year ago. Mystical Insights
"Make your money this year in the stock market," declares Martha Liefer, publisher of Financial Foresight, an investment newsletter she publishes from Scottsdale, Ariz., that employs the mystical talents of astrologers, psychics and geocosmic analysts, among others.
Liefer, 34, claims the track record of her $125-a-year newsletter at least equals that of the major Wall Street houses and, last year, was ranked among the top 10 from 400 rated for forecast accuracy.
With readership "under 1,000," Liefer says she was surprised when a recent marketing survey revealed "the bulk of the readers are stockbrokers, market analysts and money managers."
"I can't say that I believe in these things," she admits. "But I have tracked this for 10 years and have seen its accuracy. This system is not 100 percent -- none is -- especially not Wall Street. This is just another method."
Doug Casey likes to tell this anecdote about the risk of investment:
A wealthy Englishman once expressed to Nathan Rothschild his happiness at having finally amassed 1 million pounds. "How," he asked the great financier, "can I be sure to have exactly that much the day I die?" Rothschild reached into his desk drawer, took out a small pistol, and said, "There's only one way -- use this right now."