New Report on Endowments and the Shadow Banking System

In a new study by the Tellus Institute, wealthy college and university endowments are described as being over zealous with respect to investment risk-taking in recent years. Related losses during the financial crisis arguably account for school staff layoffs, major budget cuts and postponed construction projects. Local businesses have been hard hit too as part of the trickle-down argument against allocating to "large illiquid investments" by academic money pools, courtesy of successful graduates.

In its examination of a few of the U.S. ivory tower giants, authors had some harsh words for those who may have turned from protecting principal and "generating reliance income" to instead rely on "radical diversification" into venture capital, private equity, hedge funds and real assets. They question the existence of possible conflicts of interest when Wall Streeters serve as trustees. Compensation levels for professional endowment investing teams are likewise called into question. 

I plan to spend more time reviewing the 104-page publication as it includes many statistical tables that describe individual endowment holdings as well as the financial strength (or lack thereof) of certain schools. I am also curious to get this take on the endowment model. The flip side of course is that experienced financial professionals (whether trustees or part of a school's investment team) can add more value than someone with little or no asset management knowledge and, in a competitive world, they can command a handsome compensation package. Then there is the issue of being an alternatives wet blanket. I've long maintained that no investment is good or bad on its face and must absolutely consider a variety of facts and circumstances.

One wonders if there will be a renewed call for a study about whether to tax wealthy college endowments as proposed by the Massachusetts House a few years ago? See "Should huge college endowments pay tax?" (Christian Science Monitor, May 20, 2008).

This 104-page publication entitled "Educational Endowments And The Financial Crisis: Social Costs and Systemic Risks In The Shadow Banking System: A Study Of Six New England Schools" (May 27, 2010) is available for no charge.

Reading, Riting and the Rithmetics of College and University Salaries


Not everyone is hurting when it comes to take home pay. According to "Ranks of millionaire college presidents up again" (Associated Press, November 2, 2009), higher education compensation toppled $1 million for "a record 23 presidents" with Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute ("RPI") and Suffolk University leading the way. Critics should be wary however if they think that life in the ivory tower offers a walk in the park or that numbers should be sliced downward. Recruiting experts suggest that good candidates are tough to find. Additionally, executives can add to a school's endowment which in turn impacts research projects, scholarships and renovations.

As much ado is made about how much people get paid, with the financial sector taking it on the chin big-time, consider the numerous factors that influence the nexus between supply and demand for a particular bundle of skills.

Return, Liquidity and Valuation


More than a few of our recent conversations with pension, endowment and foundation decision-makers focus on hard-to-value investing. At a time when 2010 beckons with the hope of a buoyant market, institutions seek returns from alternatives such as hedge funds, private equity and venture capital. According to "The Endowment & Foundation Market 2009," put out by the Spectrem Group, about six out of ten organizations seek to rebuild by emphasizing non-traditional asset allocations. Other recent studies confirm the same sentiment with the caveat that liqudity is key.

Therein lies the rub.

  • Can you invest in "hard to value" assets and satisfy a need for ready cash at the same time?
  • Who should monitor valuation of "hard to value" assets?
  • What areas of concern are most acute from the investment decision-maker perspective?
  • What elements are "must have" with respect to effective policies and procedures?

In my September 11, 2008 testimony before the ERISA Advisory Council on the topic of hard to value investing, I emphasized the need to subsume pricing as part of pension risk management (though the concept transcends retirement plans, with full applicability to endowments, foundations, college plans, sovereign wealth funds and other types of buy side executives).

Click to access the United States Department of Labor Advisory Council report on hard to value investing. 

Participate in a short survey entitled "Hard to Value Investing Policies and Procedures." The questionnaire consists of twelve multiple choice queries. For those interested in receiving survey results, be sure to include your name and email address before you hit the "Submit" button.