Annals of rank hubris, Larry Summers edition

By Felix Salmon
July 23, 2009

This is why I love the blogs. The Epicurean Dealmaker has picked up on a detail buried in the 17th paragraph of a dry Bloomberg story from March about the relative funding costs of Harvard and Princeton — a story which, in light of TED’s comments, surely counts as having massively buried its lede.

The subject is those notorious interest rate swaps, put on by Larry Summers, on which Harvard lost a whopping $1 billion. And here’s the key graf:

Most of the swaps, signed when Summers, 54, was Harvard’s president from 2001 to 2006, were intended to lock in rates for debt that Harvard expected to issue as far off as 2022, for a 340-acre campus expansion, according to Moody’s Investors Service. In 2006 and 2007, Moody’s warned of risks from those so-called forward swaps, though it said the school’s finances and management experience mitigated them. Summers declined to comment on the record about the matter.

It turns out that Summers wasn’t protecting Harvard from having to pay more on its floating-rate debt were interest rates to rise. Instead, he was swapping hypothetical future floating-rate bonds into fixed-rate obligations. Says TED:

Forward swaps, or forward start swaps—which behave like normal swaps except the offsetting fixed and floating rate payments are scheduled to start at a date certain in the future—by themselves count as little more than rank interest rate speculation, specifically in this instance as a bet that short-term interest rates will rise in the future. They can make a great deal of sense when an issuer intends to sell bonds in the relatively near future and when the issuer wants to hedge against budgetary uncertainty by converting floating rate obligations into fixed rate debt. That being said, I have rarely encountered a corporate client who feels confident enough about both their absolute funding needs and current and impending market conditions to enter into a forward swap starting more than nine months into the future. Entering into a forward start swap for debt you do not intend to issue up to 20 years in the future sounds like either rank hubris or free money for Wall Street swap desks.

Of course, it’s not uncommon to see the term “rank hubris” applied in the general vicinity of Larry Summers. But let’s be clear, here: what Summers did could in no way be considered a hedge, under any common definition of the term. He was indulging in interest-rate speculation, just like Robert Citron. I think it’s fair to say that no previous Harvard president would ever have considered himself qualified to do such a thing, but Summers never let such considerations stop him. And his alma mater is now paying the 10-digit price.

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