Distinguished Speaker Series: Will McLean, CFA, Northwestern University

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The Endowment Model in a Low Return World

On January 24th the Distinguished Speaker Series held its first luncheon of the year welcoming one of our own, Will McLean, CFA. Mr. McLean is Vice President and Chief Investment Officer at Northwestern University, and is responsible for managing the University’s $9.7 billion endowment portfolio. Mr. McLean gave an engaging presentation to a sold out crowd over lunch at the W City Center.

Mr. McLean’s presentation centered on the challenges endowments face given the low expected return environment. McLean explained that Northwestern University follows the Yale Model of endowment investing. The Yale Model is an investment philosophy developed by David Swensen, the Yale University Chief Investment Officer. This model deviates from the traditional asset classes (stocks, bonds, and cash) and uses modern portfolio theory to invest in alternative and non-liquid assets in the form of private equity and hedge funds.

Mr. McLean laid out five principles used to manage the University’s portfolio:

  1. Diversification – this concept is straightforward. As a portfolio becomes more diversified there is typically less correlation, and the risk of the portfolio is reduced. McLean advised issues could arise if a portfolio becomes overly diversified. Excessive diversification spreads capital thinly and causes an excellent investment to impart a marginal influence on the total value of the portfolio. Over diversification could also cause investment standards to be lowered – when anything can be added to the portfolio, standards are more likely to loosened.
  2. Equity oriented portfolios need to provide a higher than average return. Given the makeup of the portfolio and the annual needs of the University, the expected return of the portfolio is in the 7-8% range.
  3. Take advantage of the illiquidity premium. The time horizon of the University’s portfolio is near perpetuity. Therefore, it is reasonable to invest in illiquid / inefficient markets.
  4. Use active managers – invest in stock pickers in the right markets. Northwestern’s investment management team and board of trustees believe active management adds value, and more uncertainty should be good for active management. Different asset classes offer different dispersions. It makes little sense to invest in the large cap equity space when the difference between the top and bottom quartile manager is not significant. Seek out alternative asset classes with bigger dispersions of returns.
  5. Ensure that your manager’s interests aligned with your own. When engaging in manager selection find out who owns the investment management firm that is under consideration. What is the owner’s motivation? McLean advised that it had been his experience that when a manager takes their firm public with an IPO, the manager’s performance underperforms. Their motivation changes from client enrichment to self-enrichment.

Due diligence should also take into account other aspects besides the manager’s performance record. Consider the internal split of management fees; do they flow to a select few individuals? How much career advancement is available to junior employees at the investment firm?  Are employees likely to be nurtured and grow or leave the firm? Negative answers to any of these questions the long-term viability of the manager to produce alpha.

DSC_3299Once his prepared remarks were concluded, Mr. McLean took a number of questions from the audience.

How do you manage board expectations of returns?

Many board members are former money managers, thus they are well versed in the risk vs. return dynamic, and they have rational market expectations.

How do you manage spending over bad returns?

There is a spending policy, which is a board level decision. The portion of the University budget funded by the endowment does not vary much from year to year.

Does Northwestern University take a view on asset allocation?

The University does not believe in market timing or tactical investing.

What is the thought process of the allocating AUM to the hedge fund asset class?

The University’s current allocation is for a 20% weighting to hedge funds. In general, 1/3 goes to long/short, and 2/3 goes to uncorrelated macro and market neutral strategies. Overall Northwestern University views hedge funds as an uncorrelated piece of the portfolio.

How does one incorporate human phycology / behavior into choosing an investment manager?

The University has a standardized approach for manager selection. Behavioral patterns at the manager firm are collected and evaluated. The manager selection team has been trained (by outside sources) to ask the right questions during the interview process, and to evaluate the manager’s non-verbal answers. Current and former employees are also interviewed for their points of view. Overall, you must train yourself to consider the all aspects of the manager’s answers and behavior.

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