Harvard Management’s Mendillo grapples with challenging environment

Even Jane Mendillo admits she had awful timing in becoming president and CEO of Harvard Management Company (HMC) on July 1, 2008. As she said in her presentation on “Endowment Management in a Changing World” to the Boston Security Analysts Society on March 25, she assumed her post
* Two days before commodity prices peaked
* Six weeks before the beginning of a massive rescue of financial institutions
* Just before six to nine months of the most challenging markets that most investment professionals have seen
Nonetheless, Mendillo showed a cheerful face to the friendly audience containing many fellow CFA charterholders.

Mendillo is cautious about investments because “At this point, uncertainty is a big factor in markets and economies. The short-mid term may be challenging,” she said. It could take many years, she acknowledged, for the size of the Harvard endowment to return to its $37 billion level of June 30, 2008. Still, she noted, the endowment has posted excellent gains since its beginnings, including its growth from only $19 billion five years earlier.

Mendillo’s caution is reflected in the endowment’s actions. “We’re not rushing for the exits. Nor are we rushing to get back into the markets,” she said. Mendillo took pains to correct what she called misperceptions that HMC has sold private equity holdings for “pennies on the dollar.” The firm has made some transactions in secondary markets, but hasn’t taken major chunks out of its private equity holdings, she said.

HMC is taking a more conservative tack under Mendillo. It has cut back its -5% cash weighting to -3% for the first time in decades. Moreover, the portfolio is “seriously in cash,” she said, because she wanted to create more flexibility in the portfolio and make room for new investments.

Where is HMC heading? Mendillo gave some clues, saying
* We continue to be cautious about deploying cash.”
* “If we don’t think we have an edge in a market, we stay out or we index.”
* External management is significantly more expensive than internal management, so if external management doesn’t pay off, HMC will hire a team that can deliver
* The failure of the illiquid portion of the portfolio to be self-funding has “impacted our appetite for further illiquid assets”
* She expects to see very attractive opportunities in real estate, but they may lie a couple years ahead.
* She is very excited about what the firm’s natural resources team has uncovered.