Harvard Gets It Right Again

by: Felix Salmon

Every year, the Harvard Management Company sends out a "John Harvard letter" saying what's happened to the world's largest endowment over the past 12 months. Historically, it has been an opportunity for the CEO to crow about excess returns. And this year is no exception.

HMC had a truly phenomenal fiscal 2007, which ran from July 2006 to June 2007. The Harvard endowment grew by an eye-popping 23%, net of all expenses and fees. Says the letter:

Reflecting the strong investment results, and after taking into account annual distributions to the University and the receipt of new gifts, the value of the endowment grew from $29.2 billion as of end-June 2006 to $34.9 billion as of end-June 2007 (Exhibit 1); the total value of the “General Investment Account” [GIA], which constitutes the pooled assets managed by HMC that include the endowment and related accounts, grew from $33.7 billion to $41.0 billion.

The man ultimately responsible for that $41 billion is Mohamed El-Erian, who's getting by on a high seven-figure salary. Which is a lot of money by academic standards, but just think how much a hedge-fund manager would make for the same returns: the average assets under management for the year were $37.35 billion, which means that a 2% management fee would come to $747 million. Then a 20% performance fee on the $7.3 billion increase in assets would be an extra $1.46 billion, for a total of $2.207 billion. To put that in context, El-Erian's take-home pay is roughly the $0.007 billion at the end of that figure.

But what's going on now? Harvard, famously, had a huge investment in Solengo Capital, run by a former Harvard portfolio manager, which blew up spectacularly during the credit bust just after Harvard's 2007 fiscal year had ended. Have the fiscal 2007 gains, then, been eroded? No.

Based on the information we have received so far, on a standalone basis the Sowood losses would translate into a decline of about 1% in the endowment relative to the end-June valuation.

The Sowood-related losses, as well as the more general impact of financial market dislocations, were offset by gains on account of the overall positioning of the portfolio, including a number of market hedges implemented in the context of our overall risk management process. The endowment also benefited from a high degree of diversification among internal and external portfolio managers and strategies. As a result, the initial estimate for the month of July points to an aggregate gain in value for the endowment of 0.4%. (As a comparison, the S&P fell 3.1% during that month while the Lehman Aggregate rose 0.8%).

No news yet on August, of course, which was even tougher than July. But if the endowment could weather a major portfolio manager blowing up spectacularly and still show a profit overall, I have a feeling that its August performance will be entirely satisfactory. El-Erian hints as much in his letter:

We are resisting the temptation to extrapolate the recent strong investment performance. Instead, it is more prudent to view it as involving a “windfall gain” component. Indeed, the question is not whether there will be market pullbacks, but rather their likely depth, breadth, and duration. This consideration assumes added importance given the gradual decline in the traditional risk mitigating characteristics of a diversified asset allocation, thus further emphasizing the importance of HMC’s hedging and risk management strategies. Indeed, the July experience, as well as market developments so far in August, illustrates how these strategies can help the endowment navigate a challenging combination of sudden market disruptions and significant liquidity dislocations.

In other words, don't expect me to increase total assets by another $7.3 billion next year: fiscal 2007 was something special. But at the same time, I know what I'm doing, and that money is now in the bank. You're welcome.

It's also worth noting that El-Erian spent a lot of fiscal 2007 rebuilding an organization which had been decimated by the abrupt departure of Jack Meyer and his lieutenants. If this is an example of how he can perform while understaffed and not entirely positioned as he might ideally like, one suspects that fiscal 2008 could also turn out to have an upside surprise or two.