KU Endowment’s losses for fiscal year estimated at 20 percent

A wicked year on Wall Street has caused the Kansas University Endowment Association to post it largest investment losses in recent memory.

As leaders of the Endowment Association on Tuesday closed the books on the organization’s fiscal year, they said the association’s return on investments likely will be in the negative 20 percent range when the final accounting is completed later this year.

“Certainly the financial crisis we’ve experienced in recent months was broad enough that it affected every asset class,” said Dale Seuferling, president of the Endowment Association. “There really was no where to hide to avoid that downturn.”

The losses are well off the Endowment Association’s historical rate of returns. For the previous three years, the association’s long-term investment program averaged a growth rate of 9.7 percent, and since 1988 it has averaged a 10.3 percent growth rate.

Now, a question becomes whether the Endowment Association will hold its spot among a rather small group of universities — 77 at the end of the last fiscal year — that have an endowment greater than $1 billion.

Jeff Davis, senior vice president for investments for the association, said he believed the total value of all assets of the association — last year valued at $1.52 billion — will remain above the $1 billion mark. But he said it was too early to predict whether the more closely watched value of endowed funds — valued at $1.21 billion last year — will remain above the mark.

Either way, endowment leaders said they believe the association has done its best to hold its own during a tough year.

“I think our performance is pretty much in line with our peers,” Davis said.

He said during the first 11 months of the fiscal year, the Endowment Association’s rate of return was a negative 22 percent. During the same time period — according to a study by Northern Trust Universe and reported on by The Wall Street Journal — endowments of more than $1 billion suffered a median decline of 19.9 percent. That average is based on 90 large endowments and foundations that Northern Trust Co. serves as a custodian for. The S&P 500 during the same time period posted a decline of about 28 percent.

The Endowment Association’s performance was better than several of the traditional leaders in the university endowment field. For example, Harvard — which in 2008 had the largest endowment at $36.5 billion — reportedly is set to post investment losses of about 30 percent. Princeton University, Yale University, Stanford University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology all are reportedly preparing for declines of 25 percent to 30 percent for the year.

Harvard, in particular, reportedly has been dogged by cash shortages during the year. Harvard and other top-performing endowments in recent years have been investing in private equity markets and hedge funds to boost returns. But this year those investment vehicles faltered, as did all others, and those holdings became particularly difficult to sell when endowments needed to generate cash.

Davis said the KU Endowment largely has avoided those type of investments. He said investments in private equity and venture capital account for less than 1 percent of the association’s portfolio.

And unlike some other large endowments, the Endowment Association has avoided leveraging — or borrowing against its holdings — to make additional investments.

“I think what we’ve done here is taken a very long view of those sorts of investments,” Davis said. “We decided to proceed very cautiously.”

Still, this year’s results for the KU Endowment were worse than Seuferling could remember in a long time. He’s been with the association in various positions since 1981. He said the bursting of the tech bubble in the early part of this decade was a previous low water mark in terms of investment performance. In 2002, the Endowment Association posted an investment return of negative 7.9 percent.

“You hoped you wouldn’t see those type of returns in the same generation, but this definitely topped that,” Seuferling said.