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Monday, November 8, 2010

Penn Evaded Harvard Losses With `Defensive' Fund, Marks Says


The University of Pennsylvania, the Ivy League school founded by Benjamin Franklin, outperformed its wealthiest peers by avoiding many hard-to-sell assets such as real estate, according to Howard Marks, former chairman of the the investment committee.

Penn held less in private equity and property, more in stocks and owned a “defensive” mix of hedge funds, as well as “substantial” cash and short-term U.S. Treasuries, Marks wrote in an Oct. 20 memo to trustees, obtained by Bloomberg News. The Philadelphia school’s investments fell 16 percent in the year ended June 2009, versus the 27 percent and 25 percent declines of Harvard and Yale, the two richest U.S. universities.

“Most things in investing are two-edged swords: if you do more of them, you’ll make more if they work but lose more if they don’t,” wrote Marks, chairman of Oaktree Capital Management LP in Los Angeles, who left his endowment post on June 30. “Two prominent examples are (1) using borrowed money, or ‘leverage,’ to magnify results and (2) investing in illiquid assets that can’t always be sold on demand other than at a substantial discount from their fair value.”

The $5.7 billion fund outperformed Harvard in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Yale in New Haven, Connecticut, again in the past year, while still trailing them over the last decade. Yale’s David Swensen pioneered the strategy of using private equity, real estate and commodities to beat stocks and bonds. These infrequently traded stakes ballooned as a percentage of big endowments when markets tumbled after the September 2008 bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc.

5.6% a Year

Penn averaged annual increases of 5.6 percent in the past decade, compared with the 7 percent and 8.9 percent returns at Harvard and Yale, and its own target of 8.25 percent. In the year ended June 30, Penn gained 13 percent on investments, tied for third-best in the Ivy League, while Harvard’s $27.6 billion endowment climbed 11 percent and Yale’s $16.7 billion fund advanced 8.9 percent.

Columbia University’s $6.5 billion fund in New York led with a 17 percent gain, followed by Princeton University’s $14.4 billion endowment in New Jersey, which increased 15 percent. Cornell University’s $4.4 billion endowment in Ithaca, New York, matched Penn last year.

Yale was the worst performer among the eight Ivy League schools, while Harvard ranked fifth.

Marks, 64, started Oaktree after leaving TCW Group Inc. in 1995. The firm managed $75.1 billion, as of June 30, in investments including distressed debt, high-yield and convertible bonds, private equity and real estate. Marks, who graduated from the Wharton school in 1967, served on Penn’s investment committee for 13 years and established the Marks Family Writing Center in 2003 on campus.

Not ‘Superhuman’

“As I wrote last year, ‘everyone had regrettable investments in his or her portfolio -- given the climate, you’d have to be superhuman not to,’” Marks said in his final letter to trustees after 10 years as the head of Penn’s investment board. “What matters is how many, how big and how bad Endowments in general had more of these than other investors in 2007-08, and thus they experienced bigger problems.”

Robert Levy, chairman and chief investment officer at money manager Harris Associates LP in Chicago, has taken over the chairman role at Penn, Marks said yesterday in a telephone interview.

“Investors have a choice between trying to maximize and trying to build in security,” Marks said in the interview. “There isn’t a right over wrong. Everybody has to make that choice for themselves. I think the events of these recent years demonstrate that choice and action.”

Stressing Stability

Penn’s investment committee emphasized stability over maximizing returns and achieved “a respectable return and minimized disappointment and difficulty in bad times,” Marks said.

In the past decade, the endowment added holdings of non- U.S. equities and hedge funds, lessened its preference for value stocks over growth companies, diversified its mix of investment managers and added venture capital and buyout firms, albeit to a smaller extent than its peers, Marks wrote. In 2004, the school appointed Kristin Gilbertson as CIO, growing its internal endowment management capabilities, he wrote.

The Ivy League schools are private institutions in the northeastern U.S. None has recouped the record losses incurred in the year ended in June 2009. As investments tumbled, universities cut jobs, froze salaries and postponed building projects.

Penn dodged the hundreds of layoffs, construction delays, discounted sales of illiquid investments and debt issuance of several of its peer institutions because the university was less dependent on its fund, getting 10 percent of its budget from endowment earnings, Marks said. In comparison, Harvard and Yale get more than one-third of their budgets from endowment income.

“Never forget the 6-foot-tall man who drowned crossing the stream that was 5 feet deep on average,” Marks said. “Prudent financial management doesn’t get you through ‘on average’ -- rather, it enables you to survive the low points."

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