College Endowments Gain 2.4% in Worst Showing Since 2012

  • Natural resources, commodities hurt performance, survey says
  • Harvard, Yale, University of Texas are top in fund values

U.S. college endowments suffered the worst annual performance in three years, dragged down by tumultuous equity and bond markets, plummeting oil prices and economic weakness in Asia, according to an industry survey released Wednesday.

The 2.4 percent gain reported by the National Association of College and University Business Officers and money manager Commonfund in Wilton, Connecticut, for the year ended June 30, 2015, compares with a 4.6 percent return in the Standard & Poor’s 500-Stock Index. In the prior 12-month period, schools saw a 15.5 percent return on average.

“This was a year in which we saw reversals -- all asset classes performed less well than the year before,” William Jarvis, executive director of the Commonfund Institute, said on a conference call.

Wealthier schools beat their smaller counterparts, according to the survey of 812 institutions with combined assets of $529 billion. The performance was the worst since a 0.3 percent decline in fiscal 2012.

Domestic equities produced an average gain of 6.4 percent in fiscal 2015, well below the prior year’s 22.8 percent return, according to the survey. Commodities and managed futures lost 17.7 percent compared with a 7.9 percent gain in fiscal 2014. Energy and natural resources were down 13.3 percent against a gain of 15.3 percent from the year prior. International equities fell 2.1 percent but posted a return of 19.2 percent in fiscal 2014.

The best performance came from venture capital at 15.1 percent and private real estate at 9.9 percent.

Overall, universities saw 10-year average returns fall to 6.3 percent as a result of the tepid performance, well below what most say they expect to earn over time, according to the report. That’s a great concern because schools count on endowment earnings to help pay for academic operations, said John Walda, chief executive officer at the membership organization based in Washington known as Nacubo.

School Missions

“Lower returns make it even tougher for colleges and universities to adequately fund financial aid, research and other programs that are very reliant on endowment earnings and are vital to institutions’ missions,” Walda said in a statement.

Still the survey showed schools closely managing their payouts, with the average spending rate falling to 4.2 percent in 2015 from 4.4 percent in the year prior. While foundations are required by law to disburse 5 percent a year, endowments face no mandates though some in Congress want rules to increase financial aid outlays to combat rising tuition and student debt burdens.

Harvard University has the largest endowment in 2015 at $36.4 billion, up 1.6 percent, followed by Yale University, which grew 7 percent to $25.6 billion, according to Nacubo and Commonfund. The University of Texas System saw endowment assets shrink 5.3 percent to $24.1 billion and the fund fell to third place behind Yale from second the year prior. Texas A&M University also shrunk as both endowments count on oil and gas royalties as a revenue source.

Some of the fastest growing funds were also ones that produced top investment returns in 2015, including endowments at Bowdoin College, which was up 14.5 percent; the University of North Carolina, which grew 10.9 percent; and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, up 8.4 percent, the survey found.

Bigger endowments on average produced better returns, as they had larger allocations to riskier alternatives such as venture capital and private real estate, according to the survey. Universities and colleges with more than $1 billion had an average return of 4.3 percent, versus a low of 1.9 percent for those with between $25 million and $50 million.

With the S&P 500 down 8.4 percent from July 1 through yesterday, the concerns of many institutional investors have switched from amplifying returns to better understanding the risks in their portfolios, said Joseph Curtin, a managing director at U.S. Trust, Bank of America Private Wealth Management, in New York.

“Over the summer the question was how do we squeeze out more return from these portfolios?” said Curtin, whose firm oversees more than $389 billion for clients including endowments and foundations. “Now it’s turned to understanding the real impact of volatility and risk tolerance.”

Campus Campaigns

The survey found a growing majority of schools formally analyzing their portfolios for risks of losses from different market scenarios. It also revealed that, despite the ongoing campus campaigns demanding divestment from publicly-traded oil and gas companies blamed for global warming, there was very little change in those committing to more responsible investing principles.

Another revelation was the slowdown in outsourcing, where schools have opted to shutter their investment offices and hire an outside firm to manage all their money. The survey found that 43 percent of universities and colleges substantially outsource their investment management function, unchanged from the year prior.

“While the use of outsourcing has been increasing for a number of years, this year may indicate a pause in this trend,” the two groups said in a statement.

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