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Harvard endowment underwhelms again

Harvard’s Widener Library
Harvard’s Widener LibraryHadley Green/New York Times/File 2018

Are you satisfied with how your investments are doing? If not, you’ve got some good company.

Harvard University, whose $40.9 billion endowment is the flushest in the academic world, said its fund returned 6.5 percent in the fiscal year ended June 30.

The performance lagged the Standard & Poor’s 500 index, which had a total return including dividends of 10.4 percent for the period, and the Vanguard Balanced Index fund, which puts about 60 percent of its assets in stocks and 40 percent in bonds, which returned 8.8 percent. The Cambridge school also trailed New England rivals MIT (8.8 percent) and Dartmouth (7.5 percent), but beat Yale University for the first time since fiscal year 2010. Yale said Friday its fund rose 5.7 percent.


“I am encouraged by the progress our team has made to date,” said N.P. “Narv” Narvekar, CEO of Harvard Management Co., who is about halfway through a five-year restructuring effort aimed at improving performance by streamlining the endowment and how it is managed. “But we are mindful that there is much left to accomplish in the years ahead to resolve legacy issues and position the endowment for long-term success,” he said in a statement.

Harvard Management, which oversees the endowment, will release details on the fund’s performance next month as part of the university’s financial report. Last year’s return was hurt by weakness in its emerging market and natural resources portfolios, a person with knowledge of the matter told the Globe.

Harvard’s fund, once a reliable top performer, was crushed during the financial crisis and has since posted mixed results. Narvekar was recruited from Columbia University at the end of 2016 to turn things around.

Among the changes he has made: reducing Harvard Management’s reliance on highly paid internal specialists, allocating more money to outside investment firms, and trimming some asset classes while adding to others.


It’s a complicated undertaking because of the size of the portfolio, which rivals the largest hedge funds in the world, and its use of private investments, which can take a long time to sell compared with publicly traded securities.

“Narv has done as good as could be expected,” said Charles Skorina, a longtime tracker of endowments whose firm recruits instititional investment executives. “He is simplifying the portfolio, which was spread into everything all over the world. At the same time, he’s trying to make decent new investments. It all takes time.”

Over the past several years, Harvard’s endowment has provided more than one-third of the university’s operating budget, or about $1.8 billion annually. But with a lackluster average investment return of 5.7 percent over the past five years, administrators have had to tightly control spending to stay within their budgets.

Moreover, Harvard, is one of about three dozen wealthy schools that will start paying a new federal 1.4 percent excise tax on investment income this fall. The levy was imposed on private school endowments with more than $500,000 in assets per student as part of the Republican-sponsored tax cut of 2017.

The increase in Harvard’s endowment assets, from $39.2 billion in the previous year, reflects investment gains and gifts. The fund returned 10 percent in fiscal 2018.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated when Harvard Management planned to announce the fund’s return.


You can reach me at larry.edelman@globe.com and follow me on Twitter @GlobeNewsEd.