To be sure, studying the investment period starting in 2009 could also impact the results. Fund managers — fresh from the turbulence of the financial crisis — may have been overly cautious with endowment funds and may have postponed more aggressive investment until it was abundantly clear that risk levels had receded.
Still the lackluster results are hard to ignore, especially given the length of the current economic and market expansion. And these funds shouldn’t try to market time, even during a crisis.
Harvard University, which boasts the nation’s largest education endowment at $39.2 billion, posted the worst performance of any Ivy League rival in 2018 with 10 percent growth for the fiscal year ended June 30. It also underperformed the S&P 500, which returned 14.37 percent over the same period.
The outperformance — or lack thereof — of the nations largest endowments also has important implications for future fundraising, the researchers found. The study found that donors to major endowments are significantly more apt to contribute if the fund can post healthy returns.
If a fund outperforms the equity market benchmark by 10 percent, donations would grow by about 1.3 percent in the following year, the economists found.
“The constituent donors of a non-profit, such as the alumni of a university, are aware of how well the organization performs as an investor and adjust their donations in a pattern that rewards stock market profits with the supply of new capital, much as one sees the inflows to a mutual fund increase when the fund outperforms the market,” they wrote.