Sep 03 2019
Many elements affect the success of your endowment over the short term. Quality governance, leadership, and fundraising are among the most obvious. However, when looking at your endowment growth over longer periods of time, what counts is how it fares during downturns that regularly hit the financial markets.
It is no surprise that healthy financial markets put the wind at the back of your endowment sails. Advancing stock markets drive your endowment asset levels higher, and usually prompt increased donation flows — a perfect combination for success. In fact, during most bull markets the average foundation results are quite similar. It appears that the rising tide does, in fact, lift all ships in the endowment world.
Fortunately, most sophisticated endowments usually have 60-70% of their assets invested in the stock market during most of, if not all of the time. When one considers that the average bull market lasts 7-9 years and has returned investors 200%+ during most of those periods, it is easy to see why the average endowment enjoys success when the good times roll.
But it also appears that most endowments lose in a similar fashion when the proverbial “music stops.“ In fact, during market declines similar to 2008-2012, the majority of endowments lost significant value, in some cases as much as 50%. As the stock market tide pulls back, most endowment ships take on water!
Such market swings create more havoc than you may think. The negative impact of substantial stock market declines has a profound effect on the health and even the longevity of your endowment assets. This is mainly due to what we call the “ugly math” of big investment losses.
A 50% decline in the value of your endowment requires a 100% upward swing in the market to just get back to where you were. (Think of it: if $100 loses 50%, down to $50, it takes a 100% gain to recoup to $100.) And this ugly math is compounded by your need to continue making withdrawals from your endowment, thus further depleting your principal during a down stock market cycle. On average it takes 6-7 years for stock markets to fully recover bear market losses.
The moral of the story is this: you need appropriate risk management tools that prevent substantial losses and ugly math.
No one can predict with accuracy when the next bear market will ravage stock markets, but committees can prepare for their inevitable arrival by having a few important policies and using certain tools. Here is a breakdown of four things you can do:
- First, you need a finance committee who is not tricked by their own human nature or lack of knowledge when it comes to market history. Often committees can be prompted by current stock market strength to become overconfident about future stock market advances. They let the endowment remain inappropriately over-weighted in stocks – at just the wrong time. This type of behavior is why the human brain isn’t great at investing and is one of the reasons that a strict, well-written Investment Policy Statement should be in place and adhered to.
- Related to this, be sure your Investment Policy Statement specifies your endowment’s maximum stock exposure—and then adhere to it. This policy should allow the investment manager to be significantly less exposed to stocks in bad markets – which I call “active asset allocation.”
- Use “sector management,” by which I mean pay attention to the individual stock market sectors, which move differently. There are periods of time when certain sectors of the stock market experience above-average growth to a point of dangerous valuation, followed by a crash. Tech stocks in 1999 (which later crashed) are a good example. Committees and investment managers should review their investment portfolios for those areas that have become significantly overvalued and reduce exposure to avoid catastrophic declines in those sectors.
- Lastly, if you follow my advice and only invest in individual securities (individual stocks and bonds from around the globe), be sure to use “stop loss orders” which help prevent a huge loss in any one investment, sector or the whole portfolio. Stop loss orders automatically sell a stock if it declines by a certain specified amount, thus keeping your endowment away from catastrophic loss.
No one knows when the next bear market will occur – but given how long it has been since the last, many smart forecasters think sooner than later. If there were ever a good time to get serious about risk management, the time is now by following these recommendations. Let’s make sure that when the next bear market is at your doorstep, you are prepared to weather the storm and make your foundation sustainable for many lifetimes!
The Sustainable Endowment was written for executives and board members of small- to mid-size U.S.-based nonprofits, charities, or foundations. Running a nonprofit requires specialized knowledge and skills, especially regarding foundation management and investing your endowment so it remains sustainable for years to come.
This book walks you through the basics and best practices of what you need to know to be successful.