Harvard Endowment Posts 9 Percent Return in 10 Months

Harvard endowment post strong growth, bests benchmarks despite turnover in leadership

Harvard's endowment posted returns of approximately 9 percent through the first 10 months of this fiscal year, according to data from the University. The increase puts the endowment's value at around $38 billion as of this April, up from $34.9 billion as of last June.

While the returns fall short of last year's exceptional 23 percent performance for the full 12-month period, they are comparatively strong given that they come amid a bear market that has seen the S&P 500 index, a standard baseline for stock-market performance, lose eight percent during the same July to April period.

Harvard's fiscal year runs from July 1 to June 30, with the most recent one ending on Monday.

While May and June—the months for which data is currently unavailable—were rough for the equity markets (the S&P index fell an additional 8 percent), the endowment weathered a similarly poor five-month stretch from October to March, preserving the gains that it made from July to September 2007.

Harvard—which has the largest endowment in higher education, though it trails some peers on a per-capita basis—usually announces official annual returns in late August or September.

For this story, approximate endowment returns were calculated from data on the monthly values of "endowment units" that Harvard entities can purchase just as investors buy shares of a company's stock. Changes in unit value for the past decade have tracked changes for Harvard's total endowment over the same periods, but lag overall growth by approximately two percent each year.

To account for this discrepancy, monthly unit changes were adjusted upward by one-sixth of a percent for each month in the graph above, and two percent was added to the overall growth in the endowment units. (This two percent differential may reflect deductions for management fees or levies on the endowment like the 0.5 percent tax for development of the new Allston campus. A Harvard spokesman was not immediately available for comment on this difference as well as the endowment's returns for this fiscal year.)

While officials from Harvard Management Company (HMC), which manages the University's endowment, refuse to discuss specific investment decisions with the media, HMC's most recent "John Harvard Letter" suggests that growing investments in commodities—a high-performing asset class as of late—may explain much of the endowment's superior performance.

Prices for commodities—goods such as copper, wheat, or oil—jumped by almost a quarter for the first 10 months of the fiscal year, according to the Dow Jones-AIG Commodity Index. The letter, released last August, estimated Harvard's investment in commodities at 17 percent of the endowment for fiscal year 2008, making it their single largest investment by asset class. That number reflects a near tripling of the share of the endowment invested in commodities since 2000.

If this heavy investment insulated Harvard's endowment from rocky market conditions through April, it likely aided returns for the last two months as well. The Dow Jones-AIG Index commodity prices rose another 12 percent in May and June based largely on spikes in the prices of oil and corn futures.

Speculation in the commodities markets has come under fire in recent weeks, with Senator Joseph I. Lieberman arguing that it is responsible for increased prices of food and energy and championed several proposals to limit investing in commodities markets.

Though many in the financial community have viewed Lieberman’s attacks as political posturing—particularly his proposal to bar institutional investors, firms with more than $500 million under management, from trading energy or agricultural futures—both major presidential candidates have echoed Lieberman’s criticisms of speculators in recent days as consumers have continued to feel the adverse effects of high oil and food prices.

Harvard's solid investment returns come at a time of leadership transition for HMC.

While HMC returned to permanent leadership Tuesday with new CEO Jane L. Mendillo, who worked at HMC for 15 years before managing Wellesley College's investments from 2002 to 2008, it spent much of the past year with interim leadership after its former leader, Mohamed A. El-Erian, announced last September that he would return to a high-ranking executive position at Pacific Investment Management Company, a bond-specialist based in Los Angeles.

During his 22-month tenure, El-Erian was tasked with bringing stability to an organization rocked by the 2005 departure of its long-time CEO Jack R. Meyer, who left with a large fraction of HMC's staff amid heated criticism over multimillion dollar compensation packages for him and his top money managers. Meyer and several of his former lieutenants now run the Boston-based hedge fund Convexity Capital Management.

Robert S. Kaplan, a former vice chairman at Goldman Sachs and a professor at Harvard Business School, served as interim CEO after El-Erian stepped down late last year.

—Staff writer Clifford M. Marks can be reached at cmarks@fas.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Nathan C. Strauss can be reached at strauss@fas.harvard.edu.