When I chaired the investment committee for an endowment fund some years ago, I faced a conundrum that many investors struggle with today: dwindling yield.

The fund, responsible for providing scholarships and bursaries, saw its purchasing power eroding because the portfolio was invested almost entirely in fixed-income securities.

Faced with falling interest rates, the spending policy couldn’t adapt, even with modest capital gains. The headmaster wanted to expand the bursary program and something radical had to be done.

I connected with J. Peter Williamson, then a professor at the Amos Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College and a consultant to the Commonfund, an organization created by a grant from the Ford Foundation that invests for endowment and not-for-profit organizations in North America and the U.K.

Professor Williamson, a Toronto native, introduced me to the Yale formula and emerging trends in endowment investing that, like pension plans, have long time horizons, but unlike pension plans, need to provide stable annual income. If your clients are in or approaching retirement, learn from endowment fund strategies that allow for more stable drawdowns and focus on risk in a way that’s different than pension and mutual funds.

The Yale formula

The Yale formula allows endowments to smooth spending. Starting with last year’s expenditure as the base, a 24-to-36-month moving average of returns is used to establish spending for future periods. Notably, the formula permits both income and capital gains to support funding requirements.

This contrasts with the more common practice of spending only interest and dividend income or a flat 4%-to-5% of the portfolio’s value. A modified version of this formula allowed the endowment with which I was involved to double funds available to worthy students by building in a growth component.

Having accommodated capital gains in spending models, the Commonfund and major North American endowment funds like Yale and Harvard began to pursue broad portfolio diversification that moved away from the traditional pension fund asset mix of 60% equities, 40% bonds.

The evolution of Harvard’s Policy Portfolio

The evolution of the Harvard Policy Portfolio

Examine the “Evolution of the Harvard Policy Portfolio” (right). The fund made three important changes:

  1. It grew total real assets;
  2. It introduced absolute-return assets; and
  3. It reduced its fixed-income assets.

What can we learn?

Like large pension funds, endowments are diversifying away from traditional asset classes. Uncorrelated assets theoretically dampen volatility.

Harvard’s move from two asset classes in 1980 to twelve today is evidence: equities (domestic, foreign, emerging, private), absolute return, real assets (real estate, natural resources, publicly traded commodities), and fixed income (domestic, foreign, high-yield, inflation-indexed).

Harvard and Commonfund endowments have beaten the standard 60% equity 40% bond benchmark by about 1.2% annually over 10 years, and 20 years for periods ending June 2012.

But one-year and three-year returns have lagged because hedge fund, foreign equity and commodity returns have been weak. Endowments must diversify carefully, because it was least effective when needed most between 2008 and 2009. Having more asset classes is not always better.



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