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Learning From the Great Investors

In college, I tried to read as many books about great businesses and investors as possible. I'd regularly stagger out of the investing section of the library with more books than I could carry. But while that reading gave me a great foundation, I later discovered that I'd only taken the first few steps in my journey toward becoming a better investor.

I'm still nowhere near where I hope to be, but I thought I'd pause to reflect on the vital lessons I've learned by observing some of the world's greatest investors.

Mohnish Pabrai: Dig deeper.
Like Michael Jordan on the basketball court, Mohnish Pabrai makes investing seem so easy. Whether it owes to his experience as an information-technology entrepreneur, or simply stems from some innate talent, Pabrai seems to have unbelievable skill in finding opportunity where others see only uncertainty.

In his first book, Mosaic: Perspectives on Investing, Pabrai describes his investment in funeral-home operator Stewart Enterprises (Nasdaq: STEI  ) , at a time when the company had a $500 million debt payment coming due in a couple of years.

"Bankrupt" is perhaps the most terrifying word in money management. A holding that goes bankrupt not only makes you look like a goat, but might even cost you your job. Stewart's looming debt payment, and the fearful uncertainty that accompanied it, became a dealbreaker for many investors.

But Pabrai saw that Stewart could simply sell some of its funeral homes to pay off the debt. That's precisely what happened, and Pabrai's fund made roughly 100% from its investment. In Pabrai's latest book, the excellent The Dhandho Investor, curious Fools can find further details about this strategy of low-risk, high-uncertainty investing.

Eddie Lampert: Capital allocation, capital allocation, capital allocation.
As a Yale undergrad, secretive hedge fund manager Eddie Lampert allegedly spent considerable time reverse-engineering Warren Buffett's investments, hoping to indirectly learn from the GIOAT (greatest investor of all time).

He subsequently went to Goldman Sachs, where he learned from legendary arbitrageur Robert Rubin. From there, he started his own hedge fund. Ever since, he's basically been shooting out the lights.

Although Lampert rarely speaks to the press, it's clear from his successes with K-Mart, Sears (NYSE: SHLD  ) , and AutoZone (NYSE: AZO  ) -- as well as his letters to Sears shareholders -- that he holds capital allocation sacred.

With Lampert's help, the companies he owns have scoured their assets, working to deploy capital as productively as possible. It's amazing how much idle cash is locked up or wasted in real estate, inventory and working capital, and capital expenditures. From Lampert, I learned that superior capital allocation can help turn a laggard into a leader, and that investors should closely monitor how management invests its assets.

Joel Greenblatt: High earnings yields + high returns on capital = good.
Joel Greenblatt's Gotham Capital has allegedly returned a whopping 40% a year. Greenblatt is the master of the spinoff, having successfully sent former subsidiaries such as Moody's (NYSE: MCO  ) , Ameriprise (NYSE: AMP  ) , and Live Nation (NYSE: LYV  ) off on their own.

Greenblatt also wrote two delightfully short and entertaining books, titled You Can Be a Stock Market Genius and The Little Book That Beats the Market. They teach investors that investing in companies with high returns on capital and low price-to-earnings ratios (or high earnings yields) leads to superior returns. Of course, there's a lot more to it than that, but at the end of the day, this simple formula does work wonders.

Munger: Learn to learn.
Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett's intellectual partner, wrote a wonderful book called Poor Charlie's Almanack, which deals with things like mental models, biases, and methods of thinking. Most importantly, Munger counsels readers that no one can tell you how to be a superior thinker.

You can read as many books as possible about riding a bike, but nothing compares to the experience of doing it. Hopefully, if we put enough monetary and intellectual effort into learning to become better investors, we can one day kick off the training wheels.

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Fool contributor Emil Lee is an analyst and a disciple of value investing. He doesn't own shares in any of the companies mentioned above. Emil appreciates your comments, concerns, and complaints. The Motley Fool's disclosure policy stands on the shoulders of giants.

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  • Report this Comment On April 27, 2009, at 9:39 PM, mamatrohimat wrote:

    To be The Great Investor, we should learn from The Greatest Investor. For me, Warren Buffett is still The Greatest Investor. Warren Buffett also learned from Benjamin Graham, also The Great Investor.

    I want to be The Great Investor. I learned from Warren Buffett and Benjamin Graham by reading many books about their investment.

    For Appreciating My 'Guru' of Investment, I named my Corporate with THE GREAT INVESTOR.

    Mamat Rohimat

    Founder The Great Investor

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