At Brown Brothers Harriman (BBH), we frequently speak and write about investing with a long-term time horizon: As a more than 200-year-old partnership, we manage assets for numerous multigenerational families, and our proprietary investment teams and external partners spend their days seeking out high-quality businesses that can compound intrinsic value for many years.
Few entities have longer time horizons than endowments and foundations (E&Fs). Some of the largest E&Fs in the United States include colleges and universities, philanthropic organizations, and hospital systems. Such institutions, built to outlast their mortal stakeholders and stewards, operate on timescales denominated in centuries. In an ideal world, their intended time horizons are nothing short of infinite.
One might think that the natural long-term orientation of E&Fs makes their approach to investing even more straightforward. After all, what does quarterly or yearly volatility matter to an endowment focused on 20- or 30-year returns? Despite this distant time horizon, however, E&Fs also bear a variety of unique organizational characteristics and financial obligations, including annual spending to support the operating budgets of their parent institutions. The primary purpose of a typical E&F investment portfolio is therefore twofold in nature: providing a stable stream of funds to support near-term operations while preserving (and ideally growing) institutional capital in perpetuity. These twin priorities are inherently difficult to balance, and satisfying both requires a thoughtful and differentiated investment approach. At BBH, we are constantly pondering these important nuances in investment for E&Fs. Not only do we have E&Fs as direct clients, but our taxable clients, Partners, and employees also often serve as advisors, donors, and trustees to many more E&Fs.
Stable Funding vs. Purchasing Power Preservation
All tax-exempt entities rely to some extent on endowment assets to execute their missions. These institutions include schools, museums, foundations, and a wide variety of other nonprofits. Such institutions are also generally characterized by their regular spending mandates and investment programs overseen by a formal investment committee (IC), typically populated by investors and other knowledgeable financial services professionals who collectively bear fiduciary duty for protecting the assets of the organizations they serve.
For certain institutions, these spending requirements are mandatory. To maintain their tax-exempt status, U.S. private foundations must make annual distributions1 that often amount to 5% or more of investment asset value; endowments, while not subject to the same laws, typically spend at least 4% to 6% of a rolling average of asset values each year to support their operating budgets. In addition to these minimums, state laws such as the Uniform Prudent Management of Institutional Funds Act (UPMIFA) contain optional subsections (adopted by New York and California, among others) that require ICs to monitor their spending rates based on a combination of expected returns, expenses, and inflation. Spending formulas differ across institutions, but almost all E&Fs base some portion of their spending on the value of their investment portfolios. E&Fs also vary in the degree to which the organizations they serve depend on them for operational support: Whereas some E&Fs are often treated as “rainy day” funds and provide minor budgetary smoothing, others fund as much as half or more of their institutional operating budgets.
Due to the reliance on investment portfolios to support operations, tax-exempt institutions must ensure that their assets can predictably and consistently support annual outlays. While short-term, unrealized portfolio depreciation can usually be ignored in a long-term-oriented portfolio, significant downturns in investment portfolios can substantially affect endowment spending, even if that portfolio depreciation is never realized. When an endowment’s asset value declines, the organization can either maintain its spending in absolute dollars or percentage terms; the former risks spending a much larger portion of the endowment than is prudent, while the latter risks absolute underspending that fails to meet budgetary needs.
To illustrate this trade-off, consider the example of a $100 million endowment that spends roughly 5% per year, or $5 million, to support its institutional budget. In the event of a major downturn during which the endowment temporarily loses 30% of its value (bringing net asset value to $70 million), continuing to spend 5% would only provide $3.5 million for the budget, creating a material shortfall.2 On the other hand, if the institution in question decides to continue spending $5 million to stabilize its budget, it will spend over 7% of the endowment’s new value and may need to realize less-liquid investments at a loss to fund operations. Neither situation is ideal and can only be prevented through a combination of more sophisticated spending formulas and a portfolio that is intentionally sensitive to drawdowns. Ordinarily, lower-volatility, income-paying assets like fixed income would be one potential solution to such needs.
At the same time, however, most E&Fs are designed to function in perpetuity. Thus, without investing in assets that deliver returns beyond the rate of spending plus inflation (which is estimated to be considerably higher in the education sector, often reaching 3% to 4%), the funds that an institution accumulates today will lose purchasing power and become gradually less effective in supporting future constituents. In contrast with stable, predictable assets like fixed income, the investments that are best-suited to growing over time in excess of inflation include various forms of equity – which can be less liquid and more volatile.
Reconciling these conflicting needs and the assets available for investment is central to the role of any E&F IC. For an institution to execute its mission successfully and consistently over the long term, its portfolio managers must avoid mortgaging the future to fund the present – and vice versa.