How to Become a Billionaire

Each year, Forbes releases its list of the 400 richest Americans. The list was particularly notable in 2007, because you had to have at least $1.3 billion just to be included.

As you might expect, a significant number of the folks on the list made their fortunes by investing. That subset includes Warren Buffett (worth $52.0 billion), Carl Icahn (worth $14.5 billion), and Jim Simons (worth $5.5 billion).

So here's important lesson No. 1: You can make a lot of money if you learn to manage your portfolio like a pro.

Easier said than done ...
Of course, that collection of billionaire investors offers no clue regarding what strategy is most likely to make you a billionaire. Warren Buffett is a dyed-in-the-wool value investor. That strategy has helped him achieve annual returns greater than 20% for more than 40 years. He's done it with investments in boring companies with competitive advantages at value prices such as Geico and Washington Post. That investment tack continues in his company's portfolio today, with WABCO Holdings (NYSE: WBC  ) , Sanofi-Aventis (NYSE: SNY  ) , and Lowe's (NYSE: LOW  ) .

Jim Simons, though, can point to 34% annualized returns at his Medallion fund since 1982, net of what are believed to be some incredibly stiff fees. He favors a mechanical strategy based on computer models that are constantly refined by an army of Ph.D.s. The firm's most recent 13-F filing revealed more than 3,200 positions, including Abbott Labs (NYSE: ABT  ) , Allstate (NYSE: ALL  ) , and tiny Air T (Nasdaq: AIRT  ) . There are likely very few (if any) other shops in the world that hold those same three companies (and 3,200 more).

So while there is no best strategy, important lesson No. 2 is obvious: You gotta dance with the one that brung ya.

Say what?
Colloquialisms aside, all of these investors are astoundingly successful because they've figured out how they make money best, stuck with their strategy in good times and bad, and refined their best practices over time.

Buffett was mocked during the technology bubble when companies that he avoided and professed not to understand as well as others -- like eBay -- were zooming to the moon. But they've come back to earth, and Buffett's still doing just fine today.

Icahn has a reputation as a corporate raider; he's made a lot of money instituting changes at underperforming companies. Although some of Icahn's recent efforts (Time Warner) haven't ended as well as he would have liked, he's worth $14.5 billion. Why mess with success?

And Simons doesn't try to analyze businesses as Buffett does (and how could he with 3,200 positions?), because that's not where his expertise lies.

Mimic the masters
The secret to successful investing, then, is not found in any single strategy, but rather in picking the strategy that's right for you and executing it faithfully. As lauded NYU finance professor Aswath Damodaran writes in his book Investment Fables, "Each strategy has the potential for success if it matches your risk preferences and time horizon and if you are careful about how you use it."

That's it. That's the secret. Because if you get too cute -- chasing hot sectors, buying high and selling low, and giving yourself only six months or less to master a given investment strategy -- you're simply setting yourself up for failure.

Allow me to introduce ... myself
Of course, if you're looking for the right investing strategy for you, allow me to suggest our approach at Motley Fool Hidden Gems. There, we use bottom-up fundamental research to identify small companies that we believe will beat the market over time. To date, we're beating the market by 16 percentage points.

We also advocate broad diversification, a buy-to-hold mentality, minimizing taxes and transaction costs, and adding savings to your portfolio on a regular basis. Taken together, we think this strategy will help you achieve your financial goals. If that catches your fancy, you can be my guest at Hidden Gems free for 30 days. Just click here for more information.

This article was originally published on Sept. 30, 2006, as "Join the Billionaire Boys Club." It has been updated.

Tim Hanson does not own shares of any company mentioned. eBay and Time Warner are Stock Advisor choices. The Fool's disclosure policy assures you that no stocks were harmed in the writing of this article.


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