Yale’s endowment ‘on track’

When colleges and universities report their endowment returns for the fiscal year that ended June 30, the figures may be a bright spot amidst other panic-ridden economic headlines.

Though most higher education institutions have not released what their endowments returned in fiscal year 2011, two experts said they expect college and university endowments will report strong performances for that time period. Yale has not yet publicized how its endowment fared in the last fiscal year, but Provost Peter Salovey said Wednesday that he thinks the University is “on track.”

“Although we are awaiting final figures, it appears that our endowment is doing the things you would hope an endowment would do,” he said.

Colleges and universities should expect to tally endowment returns of around 20 percent for fiscal year 2011, said Richard Anderson, principal of the higher education group at St. Louis, Mo.-based endowment consulting firm Hammond Associates.

If that projection holds, it will nearly double the figures seen in fiscal year 2010, when endowments at national higher education institutions returned 11.9 percent on average, according to the National Association of College and University Business Officers-Commonfund Study of Endowments. Yale posted the worst return in the Ivy League that year and trailed the national average, at 8.9 percent.

Historically, college and university endowment returns hover between 8 and 10 percent, Anderson said. At its peak — between 2004 and 2007 ­— Yale’s endowment returned figures near or above 20 percent.

The newest set of forecast numbers suggest continued recovery from the 2008 recession, which dragged down Yale’s endowment by 24.6 percent and shrunk the funds of colleges and universities across the country. Yale and other schools with large endowments, such as Harvard, were among the hardest hit in the wake of the recession and have continued to recover at a slower pace than some of their less wealthy peers.

Yale structures its endowment according to a non-traditional strategy pioneered by Chief Investment Officer David Swensen that favors illiquid assets such as real estate, oil, timber and gas, while also incorporating long-term assets more easily converted to cash. The model propelled Yale to its “boom years,” but has hindered the speed of the University’s financial recovery in the wake of the recession.

Still, Salovey said that because the University’s investment portfolio consists of fewer publicly traded assets, it should outperform other funds built around more traditional stocks and bonds in the long term.

“The way in which Yale’s endowment compares to other university endowments on a year to two year basis is not especially important,” he said. “What is important is that our approach can allow us to do better than a traditional endowment over longer periods of time — say five to 10 years — and with less risk.”

At least in the short term, experts say it is unclear how institutions with highly diversified portfolios and a more Swensen-like approach will fare. Although Yale’s finances seem in better straits than they did a year ago, Anderson said he still expects to see a “rare inversion” when the newest returns are announced, in which “less sophisticated” endowments will perform better than their larger, more diversified counterparts that have yielded higher returns over the last 20 years.

John Griswold ’67, executive director of the Wilton, Conn.-based investment firm the Commonfund Institute, said money managers are waiting to see how those more diversified endowments respond to the fiscal year that began this summer, which he said has thus far been volatile and characterized by “a good deal of anxiety.”

“You have one of the most dramatic turnarounds in the market that we’ve seen in the last few years,” Griswold said. “It’ll be more like 2008, I think, where you have a terrible fall at the end of it.”

Because that economic uncertainty will have no impact on the endowment return figures released for fiscal year 2011, Anderson said that year may be an abnormally strong one for endowment performances over the next decade.

Yale’s endowment remains the second-highest in higher education, valued at $16.7 billion.

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