Harvard Should Put Its Endowment into an Index Fund

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The NACUBO-Commonfund Study of Endowments, which covers returns on university funds at 831 institutions of higher education for the fiscal year that ended in June, showed that Harvard, which has the largest fund at $30.4 billion, did poorly. Its assets fell 4.1%.

Harvard would have been better off if it had put all of its money into an index fund. The experts who manage Harvard’s money significantly underperformed the stock market. Yale did not do much better. It is the number two university fund by size at $19.3 billion. That sum was down 0.1%.

The figures must make students who pay tuition and donors who contribute millions wonder how universities that should have access to the best investment minds can possibly post such dismal results. The reason is usually simple. In the name of diversification, money is spread across equities, fixed income, venture capital, private equity and a seemingly infinite number of derivatives and hedging products. These investment practices lack simplicity. Expert investors would be without jobs absent their ability to manage complexity. That means funds like the ones at Harvard and Yale suffer.

It is worth asking whether people who give large sums to universities ever worry that the value of those contributions could be eroded away by bad money management. The buildings the money was supposed to build, or the research facilities that it was intended to upgrade, the new professors it was meant to hire and other uses of funds got eroded last year at Harvard. Some of the programs that were supposed to be started will not be. Some of the people who were meant to work at Harvard or who work there now will be without jobs. Some worthy students might not get scholarships.

Harvard would have been better to have put its money into an index fund. As least it would have had the assets it should have had to fulfill the plans it made for itself.

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