World and Nation

Mixed returns for endowments at largest universities

An uneven economic year yielded uneven results for the largest university endowments, with reports released through Thursday revealing a range of results, from a fractional loss on investments for Harvard to a healthy gain for MIT.

Harvard said Thursday that its endowment posted an investment loss of 0.05 percent in the fiscal year ended June 30, due to steep losses on its large foreign assets. Taking into account new donations collected and money spent, Harvard’s endowment fell $1 billion, to $30.7 billion — still the largest by far, but well below the $36.9 billion it reached in mid-2008, just before the financial crisis struck.

Yale’s endowment earned a 4.7 percent investment return, the university said Thursday. But it ended the fiscal year down slightly, at $19.3 billion, as spending outpaced investment earnings and new gifts.

Earlier this month, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology reported an eight percent gain on investments, with its endowment reaching $10.3 billion, up from $9.7 billion.

The past year brought a strong stock market, a still-stagnant real estate market, plummeting overseas markets and mixed results from private equity and hedge funds, so the universities’ performance depended on where they put their money. Over all, they appear to have underperformed the Standard & Poor’s 500 stock index, which returned 5.5 percent.

The wealthiest institutions, which invest heavily in private equity, may turn out to have below-average results for the past year, said Ken Redd, director of research and policy analysis at the National Association of College and University Business Officers. “The smaller institutions tend to invest more conservatively, which might have been a better strategy this past year,” he said.

Endowments dropped sharply during and after the 2008 financial crisis, prompting many universities to defer expensive projects, then rebounded strongly. In the 2010-11 fiscal year, the average gain on investment was 19 percent. But by midyear, most endowments remained far below where they stood four years earlier — $6.2 billion below in Harvard’s case, and $3.6 billion in Yale’s.

A major exception is Stanford, which has raised more in recent years than any other U.S. university. On Thursday, Stanford reported a $17 billion endowment as of Aug. 31, the end of its fiscal year, up from $16.5 billion a year earlier, nearly matching its 2008 high of $17.2 billion.