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Harvard endowment's private equity future

October 22, 2013: 12:56 PM ET

Harvard's endowment names a new private equity investment chief, amid some signs that it has soured on the asset class.

harvard-lawFORTUNE -- Harvard Management Co. has finally named a new head of private equity, seven months after the departure of Peter Dolan. It's Lane MacDonald, a onetime PE exec (Alta Communications) who joined HMC's private equity group in August 2008. He later moved on to serve as a managing director in public markets, and is perhaps best known in Crimson-land as the captain of Harvard's 1989 NCAA championship ice hockey team.

When Dolan originally left, I emailed MacDonald to suggest that he seemed well-positioned to get the job. Deep private equity experience, plus a new-found public market background that would give him broader perspective. His reply was that it was an "interesting theory," but that he had no further comment.

A few related notes:

1. John Shue, who has been serving as interim private equity director, is expected to remain with HMC. He originally had been considered the front-runner for the job. And, yes, he is Andrew and Elizabeth's brother.

2. Expect that HMC will launch a search to replace MacDonald on the public markets side, although his successor could come from within.

3. HMC chief executive Jane Mendillo recently took some shots at the group's recent private equity returns, which came in at 11% for the fiscal year ending June 30 (compared to a 10.6% benchmark). In a public letter, she wrote:

"I would characterize our Private Equity performance this year as fair. Private Equity (which includes venture capital) returned 11.0% for the year, a strong nominal return, but well below the return on public market equity, and only slightly above our benchmark. When we invest in private equity, we lock up Harvard's money for multiple years. In exchange for that lock-up we expect to earn returns over time that are in excess of the public markets – an "illiquidity premium." Over the last ten years however, our private equity and public equity portfolios have delivered similar returns. While this asset class still presents unique opportunities for attractive returns, it has gotten much more crowded and there is less of an illiquidity premium. As a result, we are actively focused on honing our private equity strategy."

Interesting comments, particularly given that Mendillo was part of HMC's private equity group for a small part of that time (before leaving for Wellesley, and then back to HMC in a much higher-profile role). They seem to reflect a certain antipathy toward the asset class, particularly when compared to her comments about natural resources investments, which actually lagged the relevant benchmark (5.1% vs. 7.6%):

Our Natural Resources portfolio returned 5.1% in the fiscal year, lagging its benchmark by 2.5%. However, we were pleased that this portfolio generated roughly $600 million of liquidity this past year, owing to sales of timberland properties at strong prices. Over the last ten years our Natural Resources portfolio has returned 12.2% per year, versus the market benchmark of 7.0%, demonstrating the continued potential of this investment area.

I assume Mendillo would tell me to look at the long-term numbers, but weren't the ten-year private equity returns hampered by a heavily-discounted secondaries sale in the midst of the financial crisis (something I assume Mendillo supported, even though the original plan was conceived before the bottom fell out and arguably should have been postponed)? Moreover, Fortune has learned that a large number of investments made by other parts of HMC (including by some folks that later left and/or spun out) were "reclassified" as private equity several years back, thus negatively affecting overall returns.

In other words: Does HMC's private equity strategy really need to be "honed," or must it simply be adhered to?

Either way, it will be interesting to watch what MacDonald does with what is one of the most influential jobs in private equity.

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About This Author
Dan Primack
Dan Primack
Senior Editor, Fortune

Dan Primack joined Fortune.com in September 2010 to cover deals and dealmakers, from Wall Street to Sand Hill Road. Previously, Dan was an editor-at-large with Thomson Reuters, where he launched both peHUB.com and the peHUB Wire email service. In a past journalistic life, Dan ran a community paper in Roxbury, Massachusetts. He currently lives just outside of Boston.

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