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Eight top pension, endowment and foundation officials assembled in New York City on the morning of May 15 to share their thoughts on how complex and challenging their jobs have become. The previous evening these experts, who hail from Los Angeles, Washington and a number of points in between, had been honored for investment excellence at Institutional Investor’s annual U.S. Investment Management Awards dinner. Although they work within institutions of varying sizes and missions, the winning eight recognize that, no matter how hard they grapple with difficult investment questions, there will always be unknown factors thrown in their paths.

“The longer you’re in this business and the more you learn, the more you realize what you don’t know,” says Donald Lindsey, CIO at George Washington University in the District of Columbia.

The executives discussed their risk management concerns, compared their very different fund governance structures and debated whether there will be a resurgence of economic growth in the U.S. and other developed countries or if emerging markets will take over the world. Weighing in on the side of U.S. strength, Lawrence Schloss, CIO of the New York City Employees’ Retirement System, declared, “I think the technological impact on everything is grossly underestimated, particularly productivity and capital formation and growth.” Joining Lindsey and Schloss were Douglas Brown, CIO of Chicago-based Exelon Corp.; Conrad Freund, COO of the LA84 Foundation in Los Angeles; Sean Gissal, CIO of Milwaukee’s Marquette University; Joshua Gotbaum, director of the Washington-based Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp.; Robert Manilla, CIO of the Kresge Foundation in Troy, Michigan; and Lee Partridge, CIO of Houston’s Salient Partners, which manages $8.5 billion in assets for the San Diego County Employees Retirement Association.

Institutional Investor Editor Michael Peltz and Senior Writer Frances Denmark moderated the discussion, excerpts from which follow.

Institutional Investor: There are many forces today challenging the quest for investment returns.

Greece is facing the real possibility of an exit from the euro; Italy and Spain aren’t far behind. The U.S. has its own credit problems, job growth is tepid at best, and a contentious election season is under way.

Add to that the unrest in the Middle East and slowing growth in China. With so much negative news, is a 5 percent real return an achievable target?

Donald Lindsey: I’m actually very optimistic. In spite of the overriding macroeconomic problems that we’re experiencing, particularly in the developed world, corporate profitability is at an all-time high. Productivity is extremely strong. If you look at the very long-term return on global equity, it’s around 10 percent. Now, that’s not delivered evenly year after year, as we all have found out. In fact, you can go for rolling 15-year periods and longer where the real rate of return has been negative. But we are undergoing a third industrial revolution, involving digital technology, that is in the early stages; these productivity gains are going to be a fantastic tailwind for corporations.