As investors we all know the excitement we feel when we come across what we think is an undervalued opportunity that seems to have been overlooked by most other investors. The feeling of exhilaration that we get is called “cocaine brain.” Neuroscientists have found that the prospect of making money stimulates the same primitive reward circuits in the brain that cocaine does.
The only problem with ‘cocaine brain’ is that it often leads investors to overlook the negative aspects of the opportunity as they’re overcome with the prospect of making thousands of dollars.
Fortunately, there is a solution used by Mohnish Pabrai and Guy Spier to dampen down your ‘cocaine brain’ and it can be found in the book The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right by Atul Gawande. This same book is referred to by Michael Mauboussin as ‘superb’ in his paper called – Managing the Man Overboard Moment – Making an Informed Decision After a Large Price Drop. His paper provided answers on how to keep your emotions in check in the face of adversity, which includes making informed decisions after a large price drop in one of the stocks your holding.
The Checklist Manifesto includes a discussion with Pabrai and Spier on their process for dealing with these exciting investment decisions using a systematic approach that helps to curb their emotions. Here’s an excerpt from that book:
Recently, I spoke to Mohnish Pabrai, managing partner in Pabrai Investment Funds in Irvine, California. He is one of three investors I’ve recently met who have taken a page from medicine and aviation to incorporate formal checklists into their work.
All three are huge investors: Pabrai runs a $500 million portfolio; Guy Spier is head of Aquamarine Capital Management in Zurich, Switzerland, a $70 million fund. The third did not want to be identified by name or to reveal the size of the fund where he is a director, but it is one of the biggest in the world and worth billions.
The three consider themselves “value investors”—investors who buy shares in underrecognized, undervalued companies. They don’t time the market. They don’t buy according to some computer algorithm. They do intensive research, look for good deals, and invest for the long run. They aim to buy Coca-Cola before everyone realizes it’s going to be Coca-Cola.
Pabrai described what this involves. Over the last fifteen years, he’s made a new investment or two per quarter, and he’s found it requires in-depth investigation of ten or more prospects for each one he finally buys stock in. The ideas can bubble up from anywhere—a billboard advertisement, a newspaper article about real estate in Brazil, a mining journal he decides to pick up for some random reason. He reads broadly and looks widely. He has his eyes open for the glint of a diamond in the dirt, of a business about to boom.
He hits upon hundreds of possibilities but most drop away after cursory examination. Every week or so, though, he spots one that starts his pulse racing. It seems surefire. He can’t believe no one else has caught onto it yet. He begins to think it could make him tens of millions of dollars if he plays it right, no, this time maybe hundreds of millions.
“You go into greed mode,” he said. Guy Spier called it “cocaine brain.” Neuroscientists have found that the prospect of making money stimulates the same primitive reward circuits in the brain that cocaine does. And that, Pabrai said, is when serious investors like himself 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 team’s track record, weigh its competitors, consider the future of the market it is in—trying to gauge both the magnitude of opportunity and the margin of safety.
The patron saint of value investors is Warren Buffett, among the most successful financiers in history and one of the two richest men in the world, even after the losses he suffered in the crash of 2008. Pabrai has studied every deal Buffett and his company, Berkshire Hathaway, have made—good or 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 potential investments. So that’s more or less what Pabrai did from his fund’s inception. He was disciplined. He made sure to take his time when studying a company. The process could require weeks. And he did very well following this method—but not always, he found. He also made mistakes, some of them 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. Risk is unavoidable in Pabrai’s line of work. No, these were mistakes in the sense that he had miscalculated the risks involved, made errors of analysis. For example, looking back, he noticed that he had repeatedly erred in determining how “leveraged” companies were—how much cash was really theirs, how much was borrowed, and how risky those debts 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. Pabrai is a forty-five-year-old former engineer. He comes from India, where he clawed his way up its fiercely competitive educational system. Then he secured admission to Clemson University, in South Carolina, to study engineering. From there he climbed the ranks of technology companies in Chicago and California. Before going into investment, he built a successful informational technology company of his own. All this is to say he knows a thing or two about being dispassionate and avoiding the lure of instant gratification. Yet no matter how objective he tried to be about a potentially exciting investment, he said, he found his brain working against him, latching onto evidence that confirmed his initial hunch and dismissing the signs of a downside. It’s what the brain does.
“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,” he said. You see people around you losing their bespoke shirts, and you overestimate the
He also found he made mistakes in handling complexity. A good decision requires looking at so many different features of companies 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.” He needed an approach that could work for someone with an ordinary IQ. So he devised a written checklist.
Apparently, Buffett himself could have used one. Pabrai noticed that even he made certain repeated mistakes. “That’s when I knew he