Any attempt to determine history's greatest stock picker is bound to fail.
For one, the tools used by today's market mavens simply weren't available to those who operated a generation ago – not to mention those who pored over income statements and balance sheets 50 and 75 years ago. Sophisticated software now does a great deal of the leg-work in real time for the majority of investment professionals. (Catch up on this week's top financial news in Water Cooler Finance: Auto Hope, Bubbling Oil And Obamanomics.)
In Pictures: World's Greatest Investors
Then again, the universe of available stocks was far smaller in those years. The thought of investing abroad, too, was rarely considered; it simply wasn't necessary.
The Greatest Passed Through the Crucible
But more to the point, perhaps, most of today's investors haven't had to navigate a true bear market, as those who struggled through the 1930s and '70s did. That's perhaps the best test of a stock picker: the one who gets in low and pulls out with a profit, despite the depressed state of the broader market.
Below, we list a number of famous investors who both experienced a prolonged bear market and lived to tell the tale. All of them are alive today and still operating.
John Templeton's name is most closely associated today with the family of mutual funds that bears his name. But Templeton was himself a prolific investor, having made his fortune during WWII using a scatter shot approach.
Just before the war began, he borrowed $10,000 and purchased $100 worth of every stock trading below $1 on the NYSE and AMEX exchanges. In four years he sold the portfolio for $40,000. Templeton was on his way.
Sir John (as he later became) went on to pave the way in the realm of global investing, deploying his resources to benefit from the diversification offered by buying into geographically disparate markets. He always considered himself a value investor, although he sought out cheap issues that had excellent long-term prospects. By not strictly confining himself to domestic companies, Templeton quite simply availed himself of a greater spectrum of ‘"bargains". (To learn more about Templeton, see Top 5 All-Time Best Mutual Fund Managers.)
Newsworthy Investment Strategy
William O'Neil became famous for his growth stock investment strategy and proprietary CANSLIM methodology that his newspaper, Investor's Business Daily, went on to popularize.
O'Neil was a pioneer in the use of computers to assess the potential of stocks. As a broker with Hayden, Stone and Co. in the late 1950s he made use of the technology, along with his own CANSLIM set of valuation parameters, to become the firm's most successful employee.
At age 30 he went on to become the youngest man ever to purchase a seat on the New York Stock Exchange.
O'Neil's investment approach is focused on buying strong stocks that are currently appreciating in price and selling those that run out of steam. The CANSLIM method assists him to identify where a stock is currently situated on that spectrum.
In 1983, O'Neil launched his newspaper to compete directly with the Wall Street Journal and promote his performance-based stock selection methodology. (To learn more about O'Neil's investment strategy, check out Stock-Picking Strategies: CANSLIM.)
The Oracle of Omaha
Warren Buffett is perhaps the most famous of all living stock pickers. Buffett began his career in 1951, selling investments from his Omaha office and keeping in close contact with his mentor, Benjamin Graham, author of "The Intelligent Investor", whom he met at ColumbiaUniversity. But it was only as an analyst at Graham's Wall Street offices that Buffett came to hone the strategies that eventually led him to the title of the world's richest man.
Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway investment holding company was built on a patient, value-oriented approach, buying only the best companies and only when they were on offer for next to nothing. It was during the grinding bear market of the early 1970s that Buffett loaded up on a number of big-name franchises that he would ultimately hold for decades. (For more, see Warren Buffett: The Road To Riches.)
Stock picking is by no means a monolithic activity. Success can be had when a discipline is chosen and adhered to rigorously. The above three investors prove that over the long term it's not any particular investing style that makes for success, but the self-discipline and diligence of the investor himself.