Friday, July 20, 2007

Ralph Wanger: Winning the home run hitter's game

Investing is not only about buying the right assets at the right time. It's also about having rules that keep you from doing dumb things at the wrong time.

Of all the great fund managers who have appeared in Money Magazine over the past decades, no one proved that point better (or more entertainingly) than Ralph Wanger, the wisecracking, philosophizing manager of the Acorn Fund.

Wanger set out in 1970 to invest in small companies; through 2003 he did that and only that, with remarkable success. While the S&P 500 index climbed 12.1 percent a year, Acorn racked up an annualized 16.3 percent, one of the best records ever.

Wanger, 72 and retired, recently met with Money's Jason Zweig. As usual, Wanger asked nearly as many questions as he answered - and in the process found time to explain why life is like laundry, why focus matters and what Babe Ruth teaches us about stock picking.

Q. Why do you think you turned out to be a good investor?

A. At Acorn we had a clear philosophy - to be long-term holders of smaller companies with financial strength, entrepreneurial managers and understandable businesses - and we stuck to it.

Sticking to it is key. Richard J. Daley's one ambition was to become mayor of Chicago. Not President, not ambassador to the U.N., just mayor of Chicago. And since he already was mayor of Chicago, his life was much simpler. I thought that was worth emulating.

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