‘Airline pilot’ protocols in finance

Recently I’ve met three investors who have taken a page from aviation to incorporate formal checklists into their work. Mohnish Pabrai is managing partner in Pabrai Investment Funds in Irvine, California, and runs a $500m portfolio; Guy Spier is head of Aquamarine Capital Management in Zurich, a $70m fund; the third did not want to be identified or to reveal the size of the fund where he is a director. But it is one of the biggest funds in the world and worth billions.

These three people are value investors, buying shares in under-recognised, undervalued companies. They don’t time the market. They don’t buy according to a computer algorithm. They do intensive research, look for good deals, and invest for the long run. Over the past 15 years, Pabrai has made a new investment or two every quarter, and he’s found that each one requires in-depth investigation of 10 or more prospects. The ideas can bubble up from anywhere but most drop away after cursory examination. Every week or so, however, he spots one that starts his pulse racing. It seems surefire. He can’t believe no one else has caught on to it yet. It could make him tens of millions of dollars if he plays it right. “You go into greed mode,” he said. (Spier called it “cocaine brain”.) And that, Pabrai said, is when serious investors try to become systematic. They focus on dispassionate analysis, on avoiding both irrational exuberance and panic. They pore over the company’s financial reports, investigate its liabilities and risks, examine its management’s track record, weigh up its competitors, consider the future of the market it is in.

The patron saint of value investors, of course, is Warren Buffett. Pabrai has studied every deal Buffett and his company, Berkshire Hathaway, have made – good and bad – and read every book he could find about them. He even pledged $650,000 at a charity auction to have lunch with Buffett. “Warren,” Pabrai said – and after a $650,000 lunch, I guess first names are in order – “Warren uses a ‘mental checklist’ process” when looking at investments. So, that’s more or less what Pabrai did from his fund’s inception. And he did very well following this method – but not always. He also made mistakes, some disastrous.

These were not mistakes merely in the sense that he lost money on his bets or missed making money on investments he’d rejected. That’s bound to happen. These were instances where he had miscalculated the risks involved, made errors of analysis. For example, looking back, Pabrai noticed that he had repeatedly erred in determining how leveraged companies were. The information was available; he just hadn’t looked for it carefully enough. In large part, he believes, the mistakes happened because he wasn’t able to damp down the cocaine brain. No matter how objective he tried to be about a potentially exciting investment, he found his brain working against him, latching on to evidence that confirmed his initial hunch and dismissing the signs of a downside. “You get seduced,” he said. “You start cutting corners.” Or, in the midst of a bear market, the opposite happens. You go into “fear mode” and overestimate the dangers.

He also found he made mistakes in handling complexity. A good decision requires consideration of so many different aspects of a company in so many ways that, even without the cocaine brain, he was missing obvious patterns. His mental checklist wasn’t good enough. “I am not Warren,” he said. “I don’t have a 300 IQ.”

So he devised a written checklist.

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