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Harvard reports big gains on investments

Endowment earns 21.4%

By Steven Syre
Globe Staff / September 23, 2011

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Harvard University’s endowment earned 21.4 percent on its investments for the year ended June 30, roughly in line with the financial performance of other large funds, the school’s money managers reported yesterday.

The Harvard endowment, the nation’s largest, grew by about $4.6 billion to $32 billion over the school’s fiscal year.

The fund also contributed an estimated $1.5 billion to the university, covering about a third of Harvard’s operating budgets for the year.

“I think we had a very successful year,’’ said Jane Mendillo, president of Harvard Management Co., the university’s investment arm. “The markets were very good for most of the year, and we were able to beat the markets in a lot of areas. Bottom line, I’m very satisfied with the results and the progress we’ve made.’’

The fund’s performance marked the second consecutive year it earned a double-digit investment return since suffering a loss of more than 27 percent in the university’s 2009 fiscal year. The endowment’s assets had slumped from a record high of $37 billion to $26 billion that year.

Those losses and other financial concerns in 2009 prompted endowment managers to adjust the way Harvard invests. Besides portfolio gains in the most recent fiscal year, the university also said that it continued to make progress in its efforts to increase financial flexibility and improve risk management.

The endowment’s overall return for the latest fiscal year outpaced its own internal investment benchmark by slightly more than 1 percentage point.

That performance virtually matched the median gain of 21.5 percent earned over the same period by large trusts tracked by the consulting firm Wilshire Associates. A group of funds operated exclusively for foundations and endowments earned a median return of 20 percent, according to Wilshire.

Harvard’s investment performance continued to outpace other funds’ records over longer periods of time. The Harvard endowment has produced an annualized return of 5.5 percent over the past five years, compared with 5.1 percent earned by the big funds tracked by Wilshire.

In the latest fiscal year, Harvard’s endowment recorded gains on a wide range of assets but earned especially high returns on stock holdings, according to the university’s money managers.

“Many of the sectors in which we invest experienced robust returns during the year ended June 30, and a number of our strategies within those markets did quite well,’’ Mendillo wrote in an annual report released yesterday.

Harvard’s portfolios of public stocks climbed 28.3 percent for the year. The endowment also recorded smaller but significant investment gains on its interests in bonds, real assets, hedge funds, and private equity funds.

Mendillo said the Harvard endowment continues to make slow progress in an effort to shift more of the university’s money away from outside investment managers. Portfolio managers working directly for Harvard Management oversaw the investment of about 35 percent of the university’s endowment, up from about 30 percent in 2008.

The annual report does not describe Harvard’s investment performance since June 30, but it makes reference to worldwide financial volatility that has driven most stock markets substantially lower.

“The impact of these issues on our portfolio is unavoidable,’’ Mendillo wrote in the report. “The good news is that we have gained flexibility through the restructuring of the portfolio in recent years, which allows us to take advantage of declining valuations under the right circumstances.’’

Steven Syre can be reached at syre@globe.com.