September 19, 2017 / 7:00 PM / a year ago

Harvard endowment posts gains, new investment chief not satisfied

BOSTON, Sept 19 (Reuters) - Harvard University, which has been retooling the way it invests its $37.1 billion endowment, reported an investment gain on Tuesday but its investment chief called it "disappointing" and said it will take time to improve results.

The Ivy League university's endowment earned 8.1 percent for the fiscal year ended June 30, marking a swing into the black from last year's 2 percent decline.

N.P. Narvekar, Harvard Management Co's (HMC) chief executive officer who came from Columbia University last year, wrote in a letter to the Harvard community: "Our performance is disappointing and not where it needs to be."

In the letter, Narvekar said the performance illustrates "deep structural problems at Harvard Management Company" that "will require time to overcome."

Gains were fueled by strong returns from public and private equity, and real estate, while the portfolio took mark downs on some parts of its natural resources portfolio, Narvekar said.

Within months of arriving at HMC's Boston-based headquarters, Narvekar abandoned the school's long-time practice of managing a large chunk of its money internally, something that was unusual in the endowment world.

In January he announced plans to lay off roughly half of HMC's 230-person staff and send the bulk of the money to be invested by outside managers.

In his first seven months on the job, Narvekar said he adopted a generalist investment model, hired new staff and shut down internal investment platforms including the equity and relative value units.

The credit team is expected to leave HMC and the real estate team is expected to spin out, the letter said, noting that the natural resources portfolio will continue to be managed internally.

For years Harvard had operated a silo model where portfolio managers focused on their own areas, conducting research and sometimes duplicating efforts. That pattern, Narvekar wrote, had negative consequences for the portfolio.

"It will take a number of years to reposition HMC in order to perform up to our expectations from that point forward," he wrote," adding that his dramatic overhaul will ultimately pay off. "The changes we are making as an organization will produce better returns for Harvard in a more efficient manner over time."

Narvekar, who spent a decade at Columbia, also said the pace of turnover among top staff - Narvekar is the fourth chief executive officer at Harvard Management since 2005 when Jack Meyer left - had unsettled the endowment.

He took aim at the endowment's compensation scheme, which had rankled some alumni for its multimillion-dollar payouts. With Narvekar's changes, staff will be paid according to how the entire portfolio performs and there will be a look-back period, encouraging the team to focus on medium-term results. (Reporting by Svea Herbst-Bayliss, editing by Marcy Nicholson)

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