One of the best ways to learn about investing is through second-hand experience by learning what not to do from the mistakes of others. It’s the most cost-effective, resource-abundant way to learn since history is filled with other people’s mistakes. The other option is first-hand. It’s expensive but stickier — less easily forgotten.
There’s one downside though. Knowing won’t make you immune from repeating it. All the information in the world is useless when emotions drive decisions.
Take Stan Druckenmiller.
He’s arguably one of the best investors ever. He averaged 30% per year over a 30-year career, with no losing year. And he once turned a $1 million donation to a school, invested over five years, into a $35.6 million windfall.
A return like that is not easy. It requires taking extremely concentrated bets with a lot of leverage and most importantly an openmindedness to change your mind when you’re wrong.
I’ve thought a lot of things when I’m managing money with great, great conviction, and a lot of times I’m wrong. And when you’re betting the ranch and the circumstances change, you have to change, and that’s how I’m always managed money.
And yet, emotions drove him to do something he knew was a mistake but did it anyway. Druckenmiller retold the story of his worst mistake ever at the peak of the Dotcom boom in 2000:
I made a lot of mistakes, but I made one real doozy. So, this is kind of a funny story, at least it is 15 years later because the pain has subsided a little. But in 1999 after Yahoo and America Online had already gone up like tenfold, I got the bright idea at Soros to short internet stocks. And I put 200 million in them in about February and by mid-March the 200 million short I had, lost $600 million on, gotten completely beat up and was down like 15 percent on the year. And I was very proud of the fact that I never had a down year, and I thought well, I’m finished.
So, the next thing that happens is I can’t remember whether I went to Silicon Valley or I talked to some 22-year-old with Asperger’s. But whoever it was, they convinced me about this new tech boom that was going to take place. So I went and hired a couple of gunslingers because we only knew about IBM and Hewlett-Packard. I needed Veritas and Verisign. I wanted the six. So, we hired this guy and we end up on the year — we had been down 15 and we ended up like 35 percent on the year. And the Nasdaq’s gone up 400 percent.
So, I’ll never forget it. January of 2000 I go into Soros’s office and I say I’m selling all the tech stocks, selling everything. This is crazy…at 104 times earnings. This is nuts. Just kind of as I explained earlier, we’re going to step aside, wait for the next fat pitch. I didn’t fire the two gunslingers. They didn’t have enough money to really hurt the fund, but they started making 3 percent a day and I’m out. It is driving me nuts. I mean their little account is like up 50 percent on the year. I think Quantum was up seven. It’s just sitting there.
So like around March I could feel it coming. I just — I had to play. I couldn’t help myself. And three times the same week I pick up a — don’t do it. Don’t do it. Anyway, I pick up the phone finally. I think I missed the top by an hour. I bought $6 billion worth of tech stocks, and in six weeks I had left Soros and I had lost $3 billion in that one play. You asked me what I learned. I didn’t learn anything. I already knew that I wasn’t supposed to do that. I was just an emotional basket case and couldn’t help myself. So, maybe I learned not to do it again, but I already knew that.
Fear of missing out, greed, envy, or as Druckenmiller said, the need “to play,” are just a few magnets for mistakes. Emotions can cause even the best investor to do foolish things…when they know its foolish.
Druckenmiller’s Lost Tree Club Speech