Harvard's endowment loses 2 percent as stock bets fueled decline

September 22, 2016 5:56 PM EDT

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By Svea Herbst-Bayliss

BOSTON (Reuters) - Harvard University's investment arm, which oversees America's largest endowment, on Thursday said its portfolio lost 2 percent during the 2016 fiscal year, marking the single largest yearly decline since the financial crisis.

A 10.2 percent loss in its equity investments undermined the overall performance, Harvard Management Company (HMC) said in its annual report, which also noted that "returns could be muted for some time to come."

During the same time the broader Standard & Poor's 500 benchmark was flat. The fiscal year ended June 30th.

The Ivy League school's endowment now stands at $35.7 billion, down from a record $37.6 billion a year ago when Harvard earned a 5.8 percent return on its investments.

Harvard, whose investment performance was once the envy of the financial world, has lagged its rivals for some years now. The school continues to grapple with considerable turnover in its top investment ranks as well as a reassessment of how the endowment is invested.

"This has been a challenging year for endowments and clearly these are disappointing results," Paul Finnegan, chair of the HMC Board of Directors, said in a statement.

Harvard has had three investment chiefs since 2005 and is currently searching for a new one. Stephen Blyth, who held the position for only 18 months and last year vowed to improve performance, resigned unexpectedly in July after having taken a medical leave in May.

Robert Ettl, HMC's interim president and chief executive officer, said in a statement that steps have been taken to strengthen the organization in order to improve long-term performance.

A number of other universities have also been hurt by volatile market conditions. The University of California and Ohio State University each lost 3.4 percent in the last fiscal year while the University of Virginia lost 1.5 percent.

But Harvard's neighbor, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology produced a 0.8 percent gain last year. Yale, Harvard's arch rival, has not yet released its returns.

The school has been trying to mount a comeback since it lost 27.3 percent in 2009 during the financial crisis.

For decades, Harvard has been different from most other schools, including Yale, in that it managed some of its money internally while farming the rest out to external managers.

Earlier this year, Harvard decided to have outside managers make more of its equity investments and scaled back its internal stock picking operation.

But the outsiders had some trouble too during the most recent year, Ettl said. Some of them had similar stock investments, particularly in health care, which helped contribute to the losses, he said.

"A number of our domestic equity external managers underperformed for the first time in many years," Ettl said in the statement.

Natural resources investments also fell 10.2 percent, trailing far behind its benchmark. Real estate investments, which have been winners for some time, produced a 13.8 percent gain, beating its benchmark which climbed 9.4 percent.

(Reporting by Svea Herbst-Bayliss; Editing by Daniel Bases)

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