Report: Harvard Lost $1 Billion on Tomato, Sugar, Eucalyptus Investment

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Harvard University lost $1 billion after a risky investment in international agricultural backfired, according to a report from Bloomberg Businessweek.

According to Bloomberg Businessweek, Jane Mendillo, the former head of Harvard University’s endowment, traveled to Brazil in 2012 to explore an emerging agriculture sector focused primarily on tomato, sugar, and ethanol. Mendillo took a risk, believing that an investment into the Brazilian agriculture industry would return a better profit than traditional stocks and bonds.

Mendillo invested $150 million six years ago and Harvard is now finally pulling out. Harvard’s current endowment chief, N.P. “Narv” Narvekar, had to write down the value of Harvard’s natural resources portfolio by $1.1 billion to a new total of $2.9 billion.

Thomas Gilbert, a professor of finance at the University of Washington, blames Harvard’s losses on placing too much trust in their money managers, who were paid a total of $242 million between 2000 and 2014. “They became loose cannons,” Gilbert says. “When you’re managing donor money, it’s appalling.”

Alvaro Aguirre, the head of Harvard’s natural resources investment team, was paid a whopping $25 million between 2010 and 2014. Aguirre’s immediate superior, Andrew Wiltshire, was paid $38 million over a five-year span that coincided with the Brazilian investments.

Bloomberg Businessweek reports that Harvard University posted a mediocre 4.4 percent average annual return. This figure lags significantly behind the 6.4 percent return that investors utilizing a simple market-tracking index received over the same time.

“The natural resources portfolio was supposed to be the crown jewel,” one financial analyst said about Harvard’s investment woes. “But they were known for taking outsize risks, and those can cut both ways.”

As a result of Mendillo’s failures, Harvard alumni are encouraging Narvekar to avoid complex and risky investments. A group of alumni told Narvekar to simply invest in index funds going forward.


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