MONEY Investing

How Harvard and Yale’s ‘Smart’ Money Missed the Bull Market

Some influential investors have been on the sidelines for much of this surprising bull market.

The next time you want to give up on stocks for the long run consider this: Some of the world’s biggest investors did just that and have all but missed this bull market, proving again that the smart money isn’t always so smart and that trying to time the stock market is a fool’s game.

When the things looked bleakest in March 2009, the stock market began a torrid run that has carried into this year. That’s the way the market works. Gains come when you least expect them. You have to be there through thick and thin to consistently reap the benefits. But even big investors (or should I say especially big investors?) get scared and run.

So while the typical large stock has nearly tripled from the bottom, managers of the massive endowments at Harvard, Yale, and Stanford along with legions of corporate pension managers at places like GM and Citigroup were not there to collect. They were too busy sitting in bonds and other “safe” securities, which have woefully lagged the S&P 500’s five-year gain of 187%.

The Harvard endowment, the world’s largest with assets of $33 billion, missed the mark by the widest margin of the big universities. The stock market saw its steepest climb the past three years, a period when Harvard’s fund posted an average annual total return of 10.5%—well behind the 18.5% for the S&P 500. Yale’s $21 billion endowment returned 12.8%; Stanford’s $22 billion fund returned 11.5%. Harvard Management’s CEO recently said she would step down.

How did this happen? Well, the average college endowment has just 16% of its investment portfolio in U.S. stocks—half the exposure they had a decade ago. In the years following the Internet bust and then the financial crisis, managers steadily shifted assets to alternative investments like hedge funds, venture capital investments, and private equity. Corporate pension managers have done much the same, cutting their exposure to stocks, on average, by about a third.

Alternative investments have performed fairly well over the past decade, even outperforming the S&P 500 over that long period including the devastating collapse of 2008-2009. But there is no denying that the smart money was playing it too safe when the economy started showing signs of a rebound. Pension managers missed out on the deep value that had been created in the market.

The lesson is clear enough for individuals, who have limited low-cost access to things like private equity and venture capital anyway. Staying the course over the long pull is the best way to reach your financial dreams. Just three years after one of the worst market slides in history the average 401(k) balance had been totally restored, in part owing to the market’s recovery.

And you can give pension managers an assist. Their reluctance to bet on stocks near the bottom left prices depressed longer and allowed individuals putting a few hundred dollars into their 401(k) every month more time to accumulate stocks at the lower prices. That’s not great for those counting on a pension that, like so many, remains underfunded. It’s also not great for teacher salaries and student scholarships at major universities where endowments may fund a quarter of operating expenses. But don’t worry about all that. Just stick to your investing regimen, don’t panic, and know that you are the smart money more often than not.

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