How Larry Summers lost Harvard $1.8 billion

By Felix Salmon
November 29, 2009
Larry Summers:

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Most people, if they’ve hired a legendary fund manager on a multi-million-dollar salary to look after investments and liquidity, would listen to the advice of that person. But most people aren’t Larry Summers:

It happened at least once a year, every year. In a roomful of a dozen Harvard University financial officials, Jack Meyer, the hugely successful head of Harvard’s endowment, and Lawrence Summers, then the school’s president, would face off in a heated debate. The topic: cash and how the university was managing – or mismanaging – its basic operating funds.

Through the first half of this decade, Meyer repeatedly warned Summers and other Harvard officials that the school was being too aggressive with billions of dollars in cash, according to people present for the discussions, investing almost all of it with the endowment’s risky mix of stocks, bonds, hedge funds, and private equity. Meyer’s successor, Mohamed El-Erian, would later sound the same warnings to Summers, and to Harvard financial staff and board members.

“Mohamed was having a heart attack,’’ said one former financial executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of angering Harvard and Summers. He considered the cash investment a “doubling up’’ of the university’s investment risk.

But the warnings fell on deaf ears.

Summers, amazingly, wanted to invest 100% of the university’s cash in the endowment, and had to be talked down to investing a mere 80%. No wonder Meyer and El-Erian tried to talk him out of it: the Harvard endowment was never designed as a place to invest sums of cash which might be needed immediately. Instead, it’s designed to invest for the very long term, taking advantage of the higher returns on illiquid investments.

Summers was playing a high-risk carry-trade game with Harvard’s cash:

The aggressive investment of cash accounts is part of how the university has long run its “central bank,’’ an account that holds funds from its various schools and pays them a modest US Treasury rate of return. The “bank,’’ in turn, has invested the lion’s share of that money with the endowment, generating returns that are used to pay for shared needs, like graduate housing and financial aid.

No one had the stones to stand up to Summers when it came to this high-risk strategy of essentially borrowing at Treasury rates and investing the proceeds in an illiquid long-term endowment — certainly not James Rothenberg, Harvard’s part-time, unpaid, California-based treasurer.

After Summers left, sheer inertia took over, and nothing happened — maybe because El-Erian was soon on his way out as well. The result was that the university ended up losing 27% of its $6 billion in “cash”: a whopping $1.8 billion. There’s no indication, of course, of any kind of apology from Summers.

Update: Brad DeLong, in the comments, does some back-of-the-envelope math and reckons that Harvard came out ahead of the game, on net, even after accounting for that $1.8 billion loss. But that’s exactly the difference between a long-term endowment, on the one hand, and a “cash account”, on the other. If you have money in a cash account, you spend it. And money you’re spending should be liquid, not tied up in an endowment which can drop 27% in one year.

And Viyada York says that Harvard’s investment committee, rather than Summers, should be held responsible for the loss. It’s true that the managers of the endowment are responsible for its performance. But they’re investing for the long term. Summers should absolutely be held responsible for the decision — which was entirely his — to invest the Harvard cash account alongside the endowment, despite the fact that the cash account required much more liquidity than the endowment as a whole.

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