After falling to the bottom of the Ivy League in endowment performance a year ago, the University is once again rivaling its peers.
Though Yale delivered the worst return in the Ivy League in fiscal year 2010, the University registered a 21.9 percent return on investments in the fiscal year that ended June 30 — a figure in line with those of its peers and similar to those reported during the “boom years” in the mid 2000s. Over the past few weeks, schools across the Ivy League reported returns between 18 and 24 percent for the latest fiscal year — the second straight year of positive returns since the enormous losses suffered in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.
The strong investment performances reported by colleges and universities is good for all those involved, Provost Peter Salovey said in an email last Thursday.
“It is a very good thing for higher education — and for students and their parents — that the endowments at many universities and colleges seem to be recovering,” Salovey said.
Columbia University’s endowment has so far performed best in fiscal year 2011, though Brown University has yet to report its investment returns for the same period. Columbia officials announced on Thursday that the New York City Ivy’s endowment gained 23.6 percent on its investments in the most recent fiscal year, beating the second-best returns of 21.9 percent seen by both Yale and Princeton. As of June 30, Columbia’s endowment was valued at $7.8 billion, the fourth largest in the Ivy League — behind Harvard’s $32 billion, Yale’s $19.4 billion and Princeton’s $17.1 billion.
The latest figures announced by Ivy League institutions are comparable with the returns those universities posted prior to the nationwide economic downturn. Though Yale lost nearly a quarter of its funds during fiscal year 2009 and recovered slowly in the following year, its endowment had returned figures near or above 20 percent during the “boom years” between 2004 and 2007.
Despite last year’s lower figure, three endowment experts said Yale’s improved endowment performance was not surprising.
William Jarvis ’77, managing director of the Wilton, Conn.-based investment firm Commonfund Institute, said it is better to consider Yale’s one-year endowment returns in the context of the long-term investing strategy Chief Investment Officer David Swensen has developed since 1990. Jarvis said he did not consider Yale’s 8.9 percent return in fiscal year 2010 to be a disappointment, but rather a chance for Swensen to adjust to the changing economy.
Yale’s non-traditional investment strategy, also termed the “Swensen model,” favors illiquid assets that include real estate, timber, oil and gas, but also makes use of long-term assets more readily converted to cash.
“Yale’s endowment is allocated across asset classes in order to maximize long-term return while controlling risk,” Salovey said. “There will be years in which it performs better than other university endowments and years when it does not. The important question is how does it do on an absolute and comparative basis over the long-term.”
Despite the Ivies’ impressive endowment performances this year, today’s unstable markets make it difficult to anticipate how higher education investments will perform in the future, said Ronald Ehrenberg, director of the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute.
That instability was apparent in the “dreadful” performance of financial markets for the first quarter of the fiscal year that began July 1, said John Griswold ’67, the executive director of the Commonfund Institute. Because much of this volatility occurred after the most recent fiscal year ended, it is not reflected in the latest endowment figures reported by colleges and universities nationwide.
Under Swensen’s tenure, Yale has maintained average annual investment returns of 10.1 percent over the past decade.