Smaller endowments outperform Yale

The Yale endowment is no longer the top-performing fund for the past three- and five-year periods.

According to preliminary findings released Nov. 6 from the NACUBO-Commonfund Study of Endowments — the most comprehensive annual report on higher education endowments — American colleges and universities saw an average endowment return of 4.3 percent over the past five years. Though Yale bested the national average, the New York Times reported Friday that at least two lesser-known schools, Abilene Christian University in Texas and Spalding University in Louisville, have greatly outperformed Yale over the past three- and five- years periods. According to the NACUBO-Commonfund report, schools with large endowments have seen lower investment returns on average over the past five years than schools with small and mid-sized endowments.

“Yale is the gold standard by which everyone else measures their performance,” said James Stewart, a business journalism professor at Columbia and the author of the New York Times article. “[But] nothing lasts forever.”

Smaller endowments’ strong performances over the past several years have been the result of high returns from investments in publicly traded companies, Stewart said. Schools with smaller endowments tend to allocate a larger percentage of their assets toward the stock market.

Finance professor Roger Ibbotson echoed Stewart’s remarks, adding that stocks have outperformed private equity over the past few years.

Still, he said Yale’s performance over the past decade has remained strong. Over the past 10 years, endowments with over $1 billion in total assets, such as Yale’s and Harvard’s, have continued to maintain the highest average return, according to the report.

“It’s like the New York Yankees,” Ibbotson said. “Even if you have a great record, you can’t win every year.”

In the fiscal year that ended June 30, the nearly 500 U.S. colleges and universities surveyed for the NACUBO-Commonfund study averaged a return of 11.7 percent, up from a loss of 0.3 percent in the previous fiscal year.

John Griswold, executive director of the Commonfund Institute, said endowment returns are beginning to rebound. He added that he hopes the strong returns continue.

Though William Jarvis ’77, managing director of the Commonfund Institute, said this year’s results may seem very encouraging, he cautioned against interpreting them as indicative of a trend. The global economy is still relatively weak, Jarvis said, adding that endowments have yet to return to their prerecession values.

“I don’t think there’s anybody who has a good sense of what the future holds,” he said.

The report also found a reversal in the longtime trend of increasing allocations toward alternative assets last year. Yale and other top universities tend to invest heavily in these alternative classes, which include private equity, hedge funds and natural resources. Pioneered by Yale’s Chief Investment Officer David Swensen, this diversified style of investing is known as “the Yale model.”

But in fiscal 2013, the average allocation toward alternative assets fell to 47 percent from 54 percent the previous year.

The overall performance of alternative assets has not been strong since the financial crisis, Stewart said.

In the current volatile market, investors have favored stocks and bonds because they are more liquid, meaning that they can more easily be sold for cash if the need arises, Stewart said.

In a joint statement, NACUBO President and Chief Executive Officer John Walda and Commonfund Institute Executive Director John Griswold said the shift away from alternative strategies could suggest a desire for more liquid assets. However, because domestic equities returned an average of 20.5 percent in fiscal 2013, the shift toward this asset class could simply be the result of “market action,” they said.

The full results of the study will be released in January and will include data from more institutions.

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