In a recent article, Bloomberg columnist Nir Kaissar argued that although it’s time to change the securities laws that prevent people from investing like the elite university endowments, there are questions as to whether such strategies are worth pursuing.
Kaissar offers data from the National Association of College and University Business Officers showing that, over the last 30 years, universities with the largest endowments only narrowly outperformed the S&P 500, generating returns of 9.7% compared to the 9.6% return of the S&P 500 (including dividends). And, although admirers of the endowment model argue that it’s less volatile than the broader market, Kaissar says they are missing some key details. “For one,” he writes, ” the endowment model is far more aggressive than a traditional 60/40 portfolio,” adding that, on average, large endowments allocated roughly 90 percent of their assets to stocks, private assets and hedge funds and just 10 percent to bonds and cash. “Also,” says Kaissar, “that 90 percent packs more risk than the stock market,” noting that the investments are often illiquid and highly levered.
“When those risks are accounted for,” writes Kaissar, “endowments no longer look impressive.” He supports his argument by citing return data from MSCI indexes that replicate a variety of active strategies. Unlike endowment strategies, he says, “investing in indexes doesn’t require a team of high-paid analysts or fancy connections.”
Laws prohibiting “ordinary investors” from using endowment model strategies, Kaissar explains, are based in part on the argument that the risks of investing in private assets and hedge funds are too great. But he points out: “They can also lose their money buying individual stocks or cryptocurrencies, and there are no rules against that.”