"Worldly wisdom teaches that it is better for reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally."
-- John Maynard Keynes
One of the biggest problems for investors trying to follow in the investing footsteps of Warren Buffett is getting past the image of Warren Buffett.
There's a yawning chasm between the picture often painted of Buffett, and the reality of the man who built Berkshire Hathaway
There's obviously truth to Buffett's skill when it comes to investing in stocks. As a young buck, Buffett wowed investors in his private partnership, delivering market-trouncing returns by following the investing canon of Ben Graham.
Later, his investments in companies like American Express
But that's only part of the story
Focusing solely on Buffett's public-equity-markets overlooks very significant aspects of his success. After buying the Berkshire Hathaway textile business, Buffett began turning the company into what is essentially the anti-private equity fund.
Traditional private equity funds like Blackstone
Under Buffett, Berkshire buys entire companies and holds them indefinitely, using the cash flow to make new investments. And as well as Blackstone and KKR have done, I'd argue that Berkshire will continue to outshine both.
Recently, Buffett has made headlines by pursuing other coloring-outside-the-lines investments. Berkshire sold billions of dollars worth of puts contracts on a handful of market indices.
During the downturn, Buffett looked past the short-term rockiness at Goldman Sachs
Also during the downturn, Berkshire invested in the fearful environment by starting up a municipal bond insurance company, which took advantage of the troubles that were tripping up other bond insurers.
And your point is?
Simply, there's more to Warren Buffett's success than buy-and-hold stock investing.
During his career, Buffett has shown again and again (and again) that he knows where to find opportunity and how to profitably exploit that opportunity. Sometimes he's found such opportunities by investing in publicly traded equity shares; sometimes he hasn't.
Many of the world's best investors remain similarly open to profitable investing opportunities, wherever they may be. George Soros' most famous moment came from currency speculation and staring down the Bank of England. Wilbur Ross buys entire distressed companies. Yale's David Swenson specifically looked to new asset classes outside of equities to maintain market-beating results.
Buffett, convention, and you
I get it: You're a stock investor. You have your brokerage accounts set up, and you're very comfortable buying stocks and holding them for the long term. I'm with you. In fact, I think there's definitely opportunity in some parts of the stock market right now.
But even true-blue value investors can do well by considering where else opportunity might be hiding out.
A perfect example comes from the second chapter of Michael Lewis' The Big Short, which tells the story of Michael Burry, a dyed-in-the-wool value investor whose hedge fund delivered amazing results from the get-go, by simply buying undervalued individual stocks.
But Burry didn’t believe that good investing was restricted to any one single type of asset or method. Lewis writes: "The more he studied Buffett, the less he thought Buffett could be copied; indeed, the lesson of Buffett was: To succeed in a spectacular fashion you had to be spectacularly unusual."
Light-years away from convention, Burry made his mark by elbowing his way onto Wall Street in order to get his hands on credit default swaps on mortgage bonds. And he made a killing when the mortgage market blew up. Today, Burry is continuing to look all over for opportunity, and he's been investing in farmland and gold.
I've always been a pretty simple stock investor, and I don't have any problem with that. But the more I've learned about the best investors out there, the more I've seen that I need to be flexible about where I'm willing to hunt. But I'm also not quite ready to follow Soros into currencies, or to knock on Deutsche Bank's door like Burry, asking for esoteric, over-the-counter instruments.
Instead, I've been exploring shorting stocks. This can mean simply shorting a stock that is set to drop, but it can also mean betting on underperformance of a stock by shorting it against an index or a similar stock. While shorting can add a different type of exposure to a portfolio, it's not a huge leap for stock pickers, because you're researching the same instrument -- just with a different focus.
To jump-start my education in the art of short-selling, I've turned to forensic accounting expert and fellow Fool John Del Vecchio. John's an experienced fund manager who focused exclusively on shorting -- and did it very successfully, beating the S&P 500 in nine of the past 10 years.
John has put together a special report for Fool readers -- "5 Red Flags -- How to Find the BIG Short" -- that reviews five of the best ways to find shortable stocks. If you'd like to check out John's report, enter your email address in the box below, and we'll send you a free copy.
Fool contributor Matt Koppenheffer owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway and Blackstone, but does not own shares of any of the other companies mentioned. American Express and Berkshire Hathaway are Motley Fool Inside Value choices. Berkshire Hathaway is a Stock Advisor selection. The Fool owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway. True to its name, The Motley Fool is made up of a motley assortment of writers and analysts, each with a unique perspective; sometimes we agree, sometimes we disagree, but we all believe in the power of learning from each other through our Foolish community. The Fool's disclosure policy assures you that no Wookies were harmed in the making of this article.