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You’re not Warren Buffett, so don’t invest like him

Warren Buffet uses an oversized paddle against Olympian Ariel Hsing during several rounds of ping pong at Regency Court in Omaha, Neb., Sunday, May 6, 2012.

Alyssa Schukar/AP

Warren Buffett is the world's greatest investor and an inspiration to all – but that doesn't mean you should be copying his stock market moves.

Actually, if it were up to Mr. Buffett, he'd keep all his share purchases secret so that other investors didn't follow his lead. His contention – and it can be true – is that copycats tend to send share prices up, ruining his chances of buying stocks on the cheap.

That's why he shielded his share purchases of International Business Machines Corp. in 2011, until his stake in the technology giant had topped 5 per cent, then worth more than $10-billion (U.S.).

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But perhaps Mr. Buffett is doing all would-be copycats a favour here: It simply doesn't make any sense to buy a stock because someone rich and famous – and, okay, smart – is buying it.

Copying the big-shots has become relatively easy. Institutional investors with at least $100-million in assets under management must disclose their holdings to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission within 45 days of the end of every quarter, using a regulatory filing called a 13F.

Those filings are made public – and copycats and copycat enablers (the media) tend to pounce on them the way autograph-seekers chase film stars at gala events. Mr. Buffett isn't alone here. John Paulson, David Einhorn, Bill Ackman and George Soros are also watched closely.

Part of the fascination is nothing more than curiosity. It is fun to see what the stars of the investment world have been doing with their money.

But many investors make the mistake of going a step further – buying what the stars have been buying in the hope that they, too, will find enormous success in the stock market.

It isn't just individual investors doing the copying, either. At least two exchange-traded funds (the Global X Funds' Top Guru Holdings Index ETF and the AlphaClone Alternative Alpha ETF) have sprung up recently, designed to comb 13Fs for the best ideas.

There are big problems with copying, though.

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Institutional money can move fast and by the time retail investors learn about the moves, the opportunities have disappeared. In some cases, the 13Fs reveal investments that have been made more than three months earlier.

By the time the copycats learn about the investments, the big gains might have already occurred. Or, even worse, the institutional investors might be unloading their shares in favour of new ideas. Copycats could end up buying what they're selling.

As well, there are a lot of institutional investors who file 13Fs – and each of them tends to make a number of different investments. How is a copycat to know which investor, and which investment, is going to be a winner?

Even Mr. Buffett doesn't have a 100 per cent record of success. Other investment pros can be on top of the world one year and in the gutter the next. Mr. Paulson looked like a genius for betting against subprime mortgages in 2007. But if you had followed him into Bank of America Corp. or Sino-Forest Corp. in 2011, you might be in a world of pain.

Being a copycat in school can lead to failure. With investing, it offers a similar fate.

READERS: Who's your investor idol? If the big dogs of the markets are poor signals for retail investors, whom should we look to?

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