A Hard Landing For University Endowments

Ann McClure's picture
Monday, October 15, 2012

For years, America’s largest, richest and most prestigious universities have been the envy of investors. They churned out double-digit returns over the last two decades, even with steep losses during the financial crisis. Harvard’s endowment today is over $30 billion and has generated annualized returns of 12.5 percent over the last 20 years.

Their investing success along with their vaunted academic reputations led many financial experts to conclude that Harvard and its peers at the pinnacle of higher education had solved an age-old conundrum: how to generate higher returns with lower risk.

An investment stampede ensued as other universities, giant pension funds and even individuals slavishly copied their strategy, which stressed diversification along with high-cost, often illiquid alternative investments like hedge funds, venture capital and private equity funds. Today, it’s hard to find a college or university that stuck with the older and far simpler allocation between stocks and bonds. Hedge funds alone currently have what is estimated at over $2 trillion in assets, much of it from large institutions.

College and university endowment returns for the most recent fiscal year, which ended June 30, are starting to roll in. And in many cases, they warrant a grade of C at best, and in some cases, an F. Harvard reported a 0.05 percent loss and a drop in its endowment of over $1 billion in the same period, even as a simple Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index fund gained about 5.5 percent. Harvard’s endowment decline is more than the entire endowments of roughly 90 percent of all colleges and universities.

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