Harvard endowment plunges by $8 billion

The Harvard University endowment shed a staggering $8 billion between July and October, a grim omen for Yale, its closest financial peer.

The 22 percent decline, announced late Tuesday, dwarfs Harvard’s worst single-year return on record, a 12.2 percent drop in 1974. Because Harvard’s and Yale’s funds have historically posted similar returns, Harvard’s announcement suggests that Yale’s endowment, too, could be suffering its worst year ever.

Yale has not announced the value of its own endowment since September, when it released figures through June 30, the end of the last fiscal year. But University President Richard Levin said Wednesday night that Yale might soon disclose more details on the endowment’s recent performance. The Yale Corporation, the University’s highest governing body, is expected to discuss Yale’s financial condition at its next meeting, scheduled for later next week.

“Obviously [Harvard] is experiencing what most endowed institutions are experiencing, and we at Yale are not immune.” Levin said in a telephone interview. “Most likely after the Corporation meeting we will be talking in more detail about our situation.”

Harvard’s $8 billion loss exceeds the total endowment of any university except Yale, Princeton and Stanford universities, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And Harvard’s endowment may decline further when losses from some externally managed assets, such as private equity and real estate, are factored in, Harvard President Drew Faust and Executive Vice President Ed Forst said in the announcement, which was sent to Harvard deans on Tuesday.

Harvard is planning for a 30 percent decline in its endowment by next June, they said, consistent with a projection by the financial service Moody’s. Such a drop would be three times the size of Yale’s worst year on record in modern times, 1973, when the fund lost about 10 percent.

Harvard is already mulling budget cuts in response to the financial meltdown. The endowment supplies 35 percent of Harvard’s operating budget, so as other revenue streams including tuition, gifts and grants likewise fall, Faust and Forst said the school needs to “take a more fundamental look at how to align our spending with revenues that will be significantly reduced from what we had imagined just a few months ago.”

Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences already froze staff hiring last week. Tuesday’s letter said Harvard is now also considering scaling back or delaying capital projects — including its bold plans for a campus expansion across the Charles River in Allston, a neighborhood of Boston — and will try to reduce overall spending by “taking a hard look” at hiring and compensation, as Faust and Forst put it.

Harvard and Yale beat market benchmarks in the fiscal year ending in June: Harvard’s fund grew 8.6 percent and Yale’s, 4.5. And despite the nosedive, Harvard’s endowment has also surpassed market benchmarks between July and October, during which period the S&P 500 fell 24.6 percent.

Harvard and Yale had both raked in double-digit returns between 2004 and 2007.

Yale has not revealed how its endowment has fared since June, although Provost Peter Salovey acknowledged in an interview last month that the fund is “down.” Given the state of the financial world, he said, it would be all but impossible for any investor — including Yale — to see gains in such a climate.

But the day-to-day value of the endowment does not matter, Salovey added, except on June 30, the end of the fiscal year. That day, the endowment’s return over the past year is one factor in calculating how much of the fund the University will spend over the following fiscal year.

Yale’s chief investment officer, David Swensen, declined to comment for this article. But asked in a recent interview with financial magazine Worth to predict how Yale’s endowment would perform this year, Swensen said he did not know.

“We really only care about one number, and that’s the June 30 number,” he told the magazine.

Harvard, like Yale, traditionally reports its investment returns through June 30 in the fall. But Faust and Forst decided to add this quarterly announcement, they wrote, because “in the current extraordinary circumstances we believe it is critical that our efforts to plan responsibly be informed by a more widely shared understanding of what we expect.”

The revelation of Harvard’s losses had been foreshadowed by news reports that Harvard’s endowment managers were trying to dump some private equity holdings. A Harvard spokesman declined last month to comment on these reports.

Both Harvard and Yale have spending rules that smooth over the endowment’s contribution to the budget in the hope of cushioning operations from market fluctuations. Faust and Forst said they expect to spend a higher percentage of the endowment next year to buffer the school against the recession.

Forst told The Harvard Crimson that Harvard has delayed determining the endowment payout rate for the next fiscal year, which is generally announced the preceding December, until Harvard’s schools can reevaluate their budgets.

Paul Needham contributed reporting.

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