07/18/2022

All I ask is the chance to prove that money can’t make me happy.

  — Spike Milligan

Something caught our eye last week as we leafed through a recent Harvard Business School case study, “Modern Endowment Management: Paula Volent and the Bowdoin Endowment.”

The investment team has kept almost no cash or fixed income on hand for over fourteen years. Three-quarters of the portfolio runs on private equity and hedge fund moxie, the rest in stocks.

That’s not how most ultra-high-net-worth (UHNW) family offices do it. In our experience, these offices hold substantial amounts of cash and bonds, adding stocks and real estate for the long haul. Why such a divergence?

According to the HBS study, Bowdoin’s allocation to bonds and cash shrank from 18 percent in year 2000 to essentially zero by 2008 and apparently there hasn’t been a dime added to liquidity since.

Granted, it certainly hasn’t hurt Bowdoin’s performance. Ms. Volent and her team led our ten-year performance rankings in our last endowment report.

Furthermore, the school has sizable reserves. We looked up the College’s financial statements, which listed cash and equivalents of about $80 million against operating expenses of $176 million as of June 30, 2020. So the bursar made sure there was cash in the kitty. And, for the Ivys and elites, Bowdoin included, there are hefty credit lines and wealthy donors to lean on in a pinch.

Bowdoin is not alone, of course. Many large university chief investment officers have managed their endowments for years with a cash-is-trash attitude.

And, as most CIOs have learned the hard way, it’s a brave investment manager indeed who breaks from the herd.

Marks to make-believe

As we wrote last December, endowment returns for 2021 approached the realm of fantasy. Institutional investors delivered once-in-a-lifetime performance, from about 25 percent at the most tentative public pensions to 65 percent at Washington University, St Louis.

Bowdoin, for example, posted an astonishing 57.4 percent return.

We opted not to do our usual performance study last year because we felt the private market marks were too far off the mean – and reality – to fairly assess skill. Given this year’s collapsing valuations, we think we made the right call.

However impressive those investment returns eventually turn out to be once marks convert to hard cash, we can’t help but recall what my first-year finance professor (Robert S. Hamada) at The University of Chicago emphasized in class.

He said that exceptional money managers seem to have the touch. And we can theorize, not always correctly, about how they do it. But most of them have a run bracketed by a certain period or a set of conditions, and then they are gone.

Families think differently

Family offices have been around for centuries and weathered every conceivable storm. They prefer not to fly so close to the sun.

From the major-domos in ancient Rome to Rockefeller and Microsoft heirs, cash has always been king. Liquidity meant power and the means to act in good times and bad.

Maybe it’s also because family founders are usually operators who run businesses and in business, running out of cash is original sin.

The latest UBS Global Family Office Report 2022 breaks out UHNW family asset allocations and their preference for liquidity. The bank polled two-hundred-twenty-one single family offices with total wealth of almost half a trillion dollars and average assets under management of over two billion dollars.

UBS found that large family offices hold substantial cash and fixed income, about a quarter of their wealth all told. Families seldom bet the house.

There have been a few spectacular exceptions of course, Bill Hwang’s Archegos Capital Management for one; the Hunt brothers Herbert and Nelson’s run on the world’s silver supply for another. What were they thinking?

Fortunately the youngest of the three Hunt brothers, Lamar, kept his head and his money and, among other honors, became a Culver Academies Athletic Hall of Fame Inductee in 2006. Funny thing about high school, I couldn’t wait to graduate and yet, most of my closest friends come from our Culver days.

But I digress.

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07/11/2022

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