- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 24, 2014

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (AP) - Harvard University’s largest-in-the-nation endowment grew to $36.4 billion in the fiscal year that ended in June on a 15.4 percent return, the university agency that oversees the endowment announced.

The endowment is now approaching its record high of $36.9 billion reached in 2008, before the worldwide financial crisis cost the Ivy League school about $11 billion.

Although Harvard beat internal benchmarks, the return fell below the 16.1 median gain for educational endowments tracked by Wilshire Trust.

Harvard Management Co. oversees the endowment. It said gains were driven by strong returns in stocks, venture capital and real estate.

Public and private equities were the only two asset classes to have fallen short of the internally set benchmarks.

“The last five years have been a period of significant recovery and repositioning for the Harvard endowment,” CEO Jane Mendillo said in a statement. “Our organization and our portfolio are now well positioned to continue to deliver substantial returns and cash flow to the university for decades to come.”

Mendillo took over in 2008 and plans to step down at the end of the year. Harvard announced Wednesday that Stephen Blyth will succeed her.

Blyth, managing director and head of public markets at HMC, oversees stocks and fixed-income securities accounting for about 40 percent of the endowment and other assets HMC invests. He joined HMC in 2006 from Deutsche Bank in London, and is a statistics professor at Harvard, where he earned a Ph.D. in the subject.

HMC board Chairman James Rothenberg said, “(Blyth) is an extraordinarily talented investment professional with admired leadership qualities, uncommon savvy about markets, and a deep dedication to the purposes of higher education.”

Blyth said he inherits an organization “in great shape.”

“HMC has a long tradition of investment innovation, and has pioneered new strategies to take advantage of evolving market opportunities. I look forward to continuing that tradition as we seek to deliver superior returns,” he said.

The endowment has earned an average annual return of 11.6 percent over the past five years, and 8.9 percent over the past 10 years.

The endowment is not a single fund, but comprises more than 12,000 individual funds.

Distributions from the endowment contributed more than a third of Harvard’s operating budget for the latest fiscal year.

Endowment income supports Harvard’s academic programs, science and medical research and student financial aid, allowing the university to admit qualified students regardless of family income.

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