Tilson on "Points of Maximum Pessimism", and Buffett Bashers

In a column for The Financial Times, fund manager Whitney Tilson says that, while he’s no optimist about the U.S. economy’s short-term prospects, he does “believe the level of panic that has overtaken the market has created buying opportunities for investors who can see light at the end of the very dark tunnel.” Tilson indicates that we’re at or near what the great John Templeton called “points of maximum pessimism”; that is, as Tilson puts it, times “when the prevailing but myopic outlook for a country, sector or individual company becomes so negative that shares can fall to fire-sale levels.”

Tilson says that doesn’t mean we’re on the verge of a bull market. But it does mean that the staying on the sidelines is now probably a greater risk than being in the market.

Tilson also expands on his recent comments about Berkshire Hathaway’s strength, saying that the stock’s plunge in November was a great example of the “lunacy” that was gripping investors. Tilson says fears over Berkshire’s put-options contracts (which bet that four major stock indices will be higher in 15 to 20 years than they were when the contracts were written, before the recent crash) were far overblown. Using some best-guess calculations, Tilson estimates that — even with the recent market plunge — the indices would only have to gain an average of less than 1 percent annually from here on out for Buffett and Berkshire to break even on the deal.

There’s a bigger lesson in Berkshire’s recent price swings, though, Tilson says: “More remarkable — and indicative of just how detached from reality the market can become — is that shares of one of the most respected and largest companies in the country can fall 40 per cent and then rise 40 per cent in just four weeks.”