Warren Buffett’s investing successors blew it in 2014

January 13, 2015, 11:00 AM UTC
Ted Weschler, Todd Combs, Tracy Britt Cool
Berkshire Hathaway investment managers Todd Combs, left, Ted Weschler, right, and Tracy Britt Cool, Chairman of Berkshire companies Benjamin Moore, Johns Manville, Oriental Trading Company and Larson-Juhl, center, prepare to launch a 5K run sponsored by the Brooks Running Company, a Berkshire Hathaway subsidiary. The run is one of the events taking place during Berkshire Hathaway's annual shareholders meeting. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
Photograph by Nati Harnik — AP

Warren Buffett’s hand-picked successors may turn out to be more ordinary than the Oracle of Omaha.

Todd Combs and Ted Weschler both appear to have failed to beat the market in 2014. Combs missed the mark by the most. His portfolio appears to have fallen slightly, down 0.3%, in 2014. Buffett famously said that his No. 1 rule of investing is to never lose money. His second rule, the legend goes, is not to forget Rule No. 1.

Weschler did better. His picks rose 6.7%. Still, that wasn’t enough to best the S&P 500, which was up by just over 11%, before dividends, in 2014. (Fortune calculated the returns of Combs and Weschler before dividends as well.) It was the first year both Combs and Weschler lagged the market index since they joined Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway.

Last April, Buffett touted the managers’ performance in his annual letter to Berkshire (BRKA) shareholders. He wrote that both Combs and Weschler, who Buffett has indicated are likely to take over managing the bulk of Berkshire’s massive stock market portfolio when he leaves the company, had “handily” beaten the market, as well as Buffett’s own performance, for the second year in a row.

The managers will not be able to claim a three-peat. The biggest drag on Combs’ performance was Chicago Bridge & Iron (CBI), which was his biggest holding coming into 2014. The share price of the Netherlands-based construction company, which specializes in the oil and gas industry, was halved in 2014. Media company Viacom (VIAB), down nearly 15% for the year, was another laggard for Combs. Combs’ other picks did well, like defense contractor General Dynamics (GD) and credit card company Visa (V), up 44% and 17%, respectively. But that wasn’t enough to push his portfolio above water for the year.

Weschler’s big miss in 2014 was General Motors (GM). Shares of GM dropped 15% last year, amid massive recalls related to its ignition switches.

A number of Buffett’s own investments also didn’t fare too well in 2014. Shares of IBM (IBM) , one of Berkshire’s largest holdings, fell by just over 12% last year. ExxonMobil’s stock (XOM) , of which Berkshire holds $4 billion worth, has fallen 7% in the past six months. Buffett called his purchase of shares of U.K. supermarket chain Tesco, which were down 50% last year, a “big mistake.” But Buffett’s, and Berkshire’s, largest holding, mega-bank Wells Fargo (WFC), was up 24% last year.

Berkshire shareholders don’t seem concerned about the ability of Buffett—or Combs or Weschler, for that matter—to manage the insurance conglomerate’s $100 billion-plus stock portfolio. The company’s shares rose 27% in 2014. Admittedly, after years of acquisitions, Berkshire’s bottom line has more to do with the performance of the increasingly large companies it owns—including, for instance, railroad giant BNSF and Heinz—and less to do with the returns of its stock market portfolio.

Buffett and Berkshire did not return a request for comment for this story.

Buffett regularly compares the annual performance of Berkshire’s book value to the S&P 500. Last year, the company’s book value underperformed the S&P for a five-year period for the first time in Berkshire’s history. But Berkshire’s book value, like all companies, is in part a product of accounting rules, and perhaps not the best indicator of the company’s performance.

Berkshire doesn’t officially disclose its investment returns or those of its individual managers. But, like other large asset managers, it discloses its holdings each quarter. Fortune calculated the investment returns of Combs and Weschler based on that information. The returns do not include any changes the two managers made to their holdings in the fourth quarter, which Berkshire has yet to disclose, but those adjustments will not change the figures much. We used the same methodology to crunch Combs and Weschler’s investment performance in 2014 that we used in an article on the two Berkshire up-and-comers last year.

Up until 2014, Combs and Weschler’s track record had been hard to beat. Combs’ portfolio was up by an astounding 51% in 2013. Through the second quarter of last year, his portfolio was up 116% since joining Berkshire. Weschler, who joined Berkshire a year later, was up 81% through the middle of last year.

In Buffett’s annual letter to Berkshire shareholders last year, after saying that the investments of Combs and Weschler had outperformed his own, Buffett joked that if the ”humiliating comparisons” continue, “I’ll have no choice but to cease talking about them.” This year, Buffett has another reason to stay mum.

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