The Way the Big Boys Bet

Everybody loves a success story, even if the green-eyed monster twitches a bit. Even though they tend to be on the elderly side, the big successes in the world of investments are like rock stars. They get great press. They're solicited for interviews. Every appearance on television gets broadcast again and again. Their books sell like hotcakes and they star in the gossip columns. The attention is good for business: At the drop of a hat, they can raise billions for the investment funds they run.

But while the people follow the careers of models and movie stars mainly to satisfy their voyeuristic tendencies, they don't track the billionaires so carefully because they want a peep of them naked. They want tips. They want to know what to buy.

Anybody who reads every word Warren Buffett writes and studies every peep from George Soros is trying to figure out what they're up to, what they're buying and selling, and whether they should be emulated. Tracking the investment stars even makes sense from a consumerist point of view: You can invest like them without paying exorbitant management fees, 2% to 3% of your assets a year plus 20% of profits if you invest through a fund.

But it isn't easy to do like they do. First of all, they don't want you to know what they're doing. If they choose to release information, it's usually after they made their move. Now they'd be perfectly happy for the general public to follow their steps and increase the value of their investment.

Secondly, big hedge funds use short and long strategies - they bet on the direction of an investment. If they short an asset, they're betting that its value will decline. You never know what their real position is after all the offsets.

But if ever you could glimpse at least some of the choices the stars make, this is the time of year to do it.

Until recently GLG ran the biggest hedge fund in Europe, with managed assets exceeding $10 billion. Its manager was Israeli expatriate Noam Gottesman, who shuns the limelight but who's held in high esteem in the industry. What's he into? His portfolio is quite diversified, but a glance at his holdings reveals four motifs.

1) His biggest holding is in Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan, which competes with Israel Chemicals. 2) Sector leaders such as Google, Apple and Medtronic. 3) Big American banks, mainly ones that had problems, such as Bank of America an Citigroup. 4) Gold, lots of it, through mining companies.

Hedge fund legend John Paulson was the uncontested star of investments in 2008 and 2009. He made billions for Paulson & Co., and for himself, betting against the subprime mortgages market. His coup was described in the bestseller "The Greatest Trade Ever: The Behind-the-Scenes Story of How John Paulson Defied Wall Street and Made Financial History." If there were an Oscar for investment managers, he'd take best fund manager and best player.

What's he betting on now? Banks and gold. He gorged on Bank of America stock ($2.3 billion), Citigroup and JPMorgan, and is buying gold through mining stocks like Anglo Gold ($1.7 billion) and through ETFs tracking the metal. He also has shares in Boston Scientific, Sun and the energy company XTO.

Alan Howard isn't known in Israel, and should be. His hedge fund management company, Brevan Howard, is a monster in European terms with $20 billion in managed assets. Howard, a Jew, bought several adjacent lots of land in Herzliya to build a mansion, and donates generously to Jewish causes.

Brevan Howard also invests in Israel, and has 15 traders in an office in Ramat Gan executing a range of strategies, notably in currencies and bonds. Alan Howard's faves include ETFs tracking emerging markets, gold, energy and - wait for it - shares in Bank of America and Citigroup.

Despite his advanced age and semi-retirement from investments, George Soros' funds remain among the most successful in the world. What was he up in December? His fund was diving into gold, even though last month he said that, all told, gold is the biggest bubble in the world. It's all a question of timing, isn't it? Anyway, he has also bet heavily on oil, through shares in Brazilian giant Petrobras and Hess Corp. What else: Citigroup.

By now we've grasped a theme among the best and brightest of the investment world: gold, oil and big American banks. Then there's Warren Buffett, the guiding spirit of the investment world. He isn't like others. He isn't managing a hedge fund but an investment firm, and sometimes he plays an active role in managing the companies he gets into.

Buffet isn't taking a ride for quick profit: He's into creating value over the long run. Moreover, as his company is publicly traded, it's transparent. So we know what he's up to. At the end of 2009, he reduced his holdings in Exxon Mobil and Conoco, and increased his holdings in retail giant Wal-Mart, information management company Iron Mountain and Republic Service, which engages in the unpretentious business of evacuating solid waste from homes.