The idea of using genetic engineering to design perfect, or at least more perfect, humans is no longer something out of the pages of science fiction. As Carolyn Abraham wrote in The Globe and Mail earlier this year: "[M]odern science is quietly handing humanity ... the capacity to harness our own evolution. We now have the potential to banish the genes that kill us, that make us susceptible to cancer, heart disease, depression, addictions and obesity, and to select those that may make us healthier, stronger, more intelligent."
Assuming that the moral gauntlet can be navigated, there are companies -- already existing today and yet-to-be-born -- that could profit handsomely from this emerging field. Investors interested in this angle may want to keep an eye on providers of genetic testing and analysis equipment like Illumina (NAS: ILMN) and Affymetrix, both of which could benefit as this trend continues to gain steam.
But for my part I'm far more interested in investor behavior than the specifics of individual genetic-engineering companies. So while considering the brave new world that Abraham's article suggested could be ahead, I couldn't help but wonder: If I could build the perfect investor, what traits would I want to program in?
Pushing for a high IQ or creating a whiz of a mathematician wouldn't be at the top of my list. Investing is a difficult pursuit, but a Mensa membership or an ability to do advanced calculus in your head isn't a prerequisite for investing greatness. Instead, the four attributes below would top my list for creating the perfect investor.
Focus and attention to detail
All too often, the revelations that "blindside" investors are based on information that was available to them through easily accessible documents. The infamous collapse of Enron began when a reporter highlighted the opacity of the company's filings and the stock's huge valuation. And though Reuters has done a great job revealing previously unknown issues around Chesapeake Energy's (NYS: CHK) CEO Aubrey McClendon, McClendon's lavish perks, interwoven personal and company finances, and cozy relationship with the company's board have been available through Chesapeake's proxy statements for years.
Companies' SEC filings are often dry and uninteresting -- I have no argument there. But an investor who has the attention span to make his or her way through even just the most important of those filings -- most notably the annual report and proxy statement -- can garner a significant informational advantage over other investors.
A healthy fear of debt
Bear Stearns, Long-Term Capital Management, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters' (NAS: GMCR) founder Robert Stiller. These are just a few in a long list of investors that have been burned badly by using liberal amounts of debt to finance their investing. Debt can fuel faster growth and headier returns, but when it goes wrong, it often goes very wrong -- as in "game over" wrong.
My ideal investor would keep a safe distance from heavy leverage -- whether that means using margin to buy investments or investing in companies with heavily indebted balance sheets.
Self-assurance and confidence
The herd will lead you off the cliff every time, guaranteed. In 2000, the herd was thundering after tech stocks. In 2007, the herd thought that high earnings made the valuations on banks like Bank of America (NYS: BAC) , Citigroup (NYS: C) , and, yes, Lehman Brothers irresistible. In 2009, the herd wanted nothing to do with B of A, Citi, or really any stocks at all. In all cases, the investor that zigged when the herd was zagging was the winner. (Notably, the bias is once again strongly against B of A and Citi.)
Look back over the history of successful investors and you'll find that they've all had the confidence to believe in their own diligence even when -- or, rather, especially when -- the herd is charging in the opposite direction.
Saving the most important for last, my perfect investor would have heaps of humility and be willing to admit mistakes, change position when necessary, and not feel the need to pretend to know everything under the sun.
While this may seem to run contrary to the "self-assurance" point above, the two can play quite nicely together. Self-assurance is needed in order to avoid getting swayed by the exuberance and strong emotions of the investing herd. Humility is essential to recognize when you got the facts wrong and need to reevaluate. Confidence allows you to be willing to trust your work and hit the buy button. Humility is necessary to accept that even your best work can be foiled by the uncertainty of the future.
And, of course, as so many wise folks have pointed out, true knowledge is knowing how much you don't know. An investor who lacks humility is one who thinks they can dive into any investment in any industry whether or not they have any real understanding of what they're getting themselves into. And that is an easy recipe for investing disaster.
Bonus trait: Creativity
I'm not sure I'd argue that creativity is a necessity for a great investor -- after all, many of the best investments are relatively boring companies that are simply great at pleasing their customers and creating shareholder value year in and year out.
However, I'm continually impressed with investors who are able to think outside the box and see what other investors don't. There is a fine line between creative, forward-looking investors and speculators who take fliers on every newfangled company that comes along. But those who do the former well find truly impressive investing opportunities.
In the special report "Discover the Next Rule-Breaking Multibagger," the great investors from Motley Fool Rule Breakers opine on this trait and offer up a stock idea that could have a very bright future. You can score a free copy of that report by clicking here.
At the time thisarticle was published The Motley Fool owns shares of Citigroup, Chesapeake Energy, and Bank of America. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, Chesapeake Energy, and Illumina. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended creating a lurking gator position in Green Mountain Coffee Roasters. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.Fool contributor Matt Koppenheffer owns shares of Bank of America, but does not have a financial interest in any of the other companies mentioned. You can check out what Matt is keeping an eye on by visiting his CAPS portfolio, or you can follow Matt on Twitter @KoppTheFool or Facebook. The Fool's disclosure policy prefers dividends over a sharp stick in the eye.
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