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Yale's Money Guru Shares Wisdom with Masses

David Swensen stands on the trading floor at his offices at Yale, where he and his team of 20 analysts work.
David Swensen stands on the trading floor at his offices at Yale, where he and his team of 20 analysts work.

Yale University recently announced a 23 percent return on its investments, swelling its endowment to a whopping $18 billion. The man behind that investment success is David Swensen, one of the most gifted investors in the world. He's made an average 16 percent annual return over 21 years — better than any portfolio manager at any other university.

Nobody has numbers that good. Not at Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, or any foundation or pension fund; Swensen consistently beats them all. And recently, Swensen has become passionate about trying to teach individual investors how best to save for retirement.

For a long time, universities invested in a plain-vanilla mix of stocks and bonds. Swensen helped change that. He has built a portfolio with stakes in venture capital funds, real-estate partnerships, emerging market stocks and scores of small, specialized investment outfits. Any tiny market movement changes the balance of the whole thing.

So how does Swensen keep track of it all?

"I have a calculator," Swensen says with a chuckle. "And then I talk to one of my colleagues, who executes the trade. So it's decidedly low-tech."

He also has a nice computer with two flat-panel monitors on his desk, which sits in the middle of the small trading floor where he and his team of 20 analysts work. The monitors show the value of Yale's investments by category. Swensen says he could use automated software to help him balance the numbers each day, but that would take all the fun out of it.

The Billion-Dollar Man

Swensen, 52, is an unassuming, affable Midwesterner. He could easily pass for a friendly high-school math teacher or a town pastor. But he makes more money than they do. Yale pays Swensen $1.3 million a year. That sounds impressive until you realize that, with his track record, if Swensen started his own hedge fund, he could earn $50 million to $100 million a year.

But Swensen would rather work for Yale, where he earned a Ph.D. in economics. He spent five years on Wall Street and then, 21 years ago, agreed to return to lead Yale's investment office.

"I had a great time on Wall Street, but it didn't satisfy my soul," he says. "And I've always loved educational institutions. My father was a university professor, my grandfather was a university professor. So there must be something in the genes."

Swensen teaches a course at Yale in which he airs his unorthodox view of the basics of a well-diversified portfolio. He argues that, by owning not only stocks and bonds but also holdings in real estate, timber, oil and gas, and other investments, you can get strong returns with less overall risk.

A few years ago, he decided he wanted to spread his message to more people. So he wrote a book, Unconventional Success, with advice for the average investor. Swensen warns there's no "one-size-fits-all" approach to investing. But if you want to follow his advice, he shares some basic tips below.

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NPR correspondent Chris Arnold is based in Boston. His reports are heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazines Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition. He joined NPR in 1996 and was based in San Francisco before moving to Boston in 2001.