Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Investing in Endowments - The Dream that Will Never Be

I LOVE this idea from Felix Salmon about alumni being able to invest in their alma mater's endowments. Its innovative, its different, and it will never happen in our lifetimes. However, I love it.

As John Mauldin is one to point out, regular people should be allowed to invest in alternatives as a way of enhancing returns in their retirement portfolios (or whatever other funds they allocate to the alternatives space). You can find his 2003 congressional testimony on the subject here.

I imagine the biggest problems would be the administration of small(er) investor accounts and the accredited investor rules. You could attack the first problem by allowing minimum investments of greater than 6 figures, say $250K+. The second problem requires US government intervention, which makes it almost impossible to see how one would ever get past this limitation.

I also imagine many larger endowments would want to avoid the kind of incessant inquiries that small investors would bring with them. No matter how experienced those investors are, they are probably going to require or request some level of hand holding, and endowments likely aren't interested in such time sinks. The larger endowments (Harvard and Yale in particular) would not need to resort to this kind of asset gathering; it would purely be a "perk" offered to alumni. There are plenty of smaller institutions, with smaller endowments, that would probably seek to use this re-configuration of the landscape to draw assets and increase their management fees. The new laws would have to take this into account. It makes sense if this structure only imposes fees on profits when the investor withdraws, and reduces the management fees. Endowment investors shouldn't be paying standard hedge fund management fees, especially when the endowments are non-profit organizations and they employ their own managers. A range of 0.5% - 1.25% in fees seems appropriate, based on whether the endowment managers are in-house (lower) or outsourced (higher).

Even so, investing in your university's endowment, with the management fee going to your university, would be a nice way to contribute and still benefit from the expertise the university employs. (That is, if the endowment is large enough to employ in-house investment managers and strategists. If they outsource significant amounts of their endowment management, then this idea is probably unworkable.) Maybe all the drama which led to the founding of Convexity Capital by Jack Meyer could have been avoided if those vocal alumni had been able to invest alongside the endowment, instead of watching from the sidelines. Felix's idea has some obvious tax benefits as well, and if one did not need the money from the endowment, they could let it ride or donate it to the university easily. Brilliant!

Anyway, I had to comment on that idea. I'd love to see alumni offered this kind of investment opportunity. It would sure take a lot of work to make it happen though, which makes me cautiously pessimistic that it would ever occur. (Thanks to Paul Vixie for that phrase, one of my favorite quotes of all time, received from him in personal e-mail!)

Still, how awesome would this be if it became real! A man can dream, can't he?

Until next time, peeps!

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