Humility is not the first word Harvard University brings to mind.
But last year, when the storied school’s endowment soared in value along with just about every kind of investment on the planet, administration officials wisely tempered their enthusiasm — and expectations for the future. Their message to students, staff, alumni, and the often envious outside world: Markets give and markets take away.
Sure enough, their caveat got a call-back on Thursday as Harvard reported that the value of its endowment — including investments and donations — slumped by $2.3 billion to $50.9 billion in the year ended June 30, amid an ugly selloff in financial markets.
Even after the haircut, however, Harvard was up $11 billion over the past two years, and its endowment remains the largest in higher education.
The Cambridge school’s investments fell 1.8 percent in the most recent year, according to its annual financial report, compared with a 34 percent gain in fiscal 2021.
“The disparity between [returns in the past two years] was stark and reinforces the necessity of focusing on long-term, risk adjusted returns,” N.P. “Narv” Narvekar, who oversees the endowment, said in Harvard’s annual financial report.
Narvekar and his exceedingly amply compensated investment managers seek to protect the endowment from severe “downdrafts” like the one we we’ve been going through for most of the year. They did a pretty good job when you consider the beating financial markets took during the academic fiscal year.
Publicly traded and private equities make up the largest chunk of Harvard’s portfolio.
The Standard & Poor’s 500 fell 11 percent from June 2021 through June 2022, including dividends. The tech-laden Nasdaq Composite index tumbled 23 percent. Global equities, as tracked by the MSCI ACWI Index, lost 16 percent.
“The most significant impact was the poor performance of global equity markets over the course of the year,” Narvekar said.
He also cited two other factors that weighed on Harvard’s returns: a lackluster year by hedge funds, which had turned in big gains over the previous four years, and the endowment’s small exposure to energy stocks, a rare hot sector in 2022. Harvard is winding down its investments in fossil fuels.
Harvard’s performance was a bit worse than arch rival Yale University’s. Investment managers there eked out a 0.8 percent gain, and the New Haven school’s endowment ended June at $41.4 billion, down about $900,000 from a year earlier.
MIT’s investments fell 5.3 percent, leaving the endowment at $24.6 billion. At the University of Pennsylvania, the endowment’s return was flat and its value rose slightly to $20.7 billion including donations.
Dartmouth College’s investments fell 3.1 percent, with the endowment ending the year at $8.1 billion.
While all the schools have fared better than most individual investors — I’d feel a lot better if my IRA held up like Harvard’s endowment — the full picture for fiscal 2022 isn’t known.
That’s because the endowments invest heavily in private equity and venture capital funds, and those managers typically lag three months behind in valuing their illiquid assets. Losses on those holdings will be felt in the new academic year, as well as the impact of the continued public market meltdown after June 30.
“My impression is the worst is yet to come,” said Kristin Reynolds, a partner at investment consultant NEPC in Boston and the team leader of its endowments and foundations group. “However, I would say that private markets performance had been so strong the year prior, that it is still helping portfolios relative to public markets.”
The market gives and the market takes away. And sometime it keeps on taking away a lot longer than we’d like.