Friday, December 18, 2009

Larry Summers Was a Total Financial Screw Up as President of Harvard

The latest hit piece on Summers, who is now President Obama's top economic advisor, comes out of Bloomberg. It is devastating. Starting with the title of the piece:Harvard Swaps Are So Toxic Even Summers Won’t Explain
In one of the longest pieces I have ever seen come out of Bloomberg, Michael McDonald, John Lauerman and Gillian Wee in part write:

As vanishing credit spurred the government-led rescue of dozens of financial institutions, Harvard was so strapped for cash that it asked Massachusetts for fast-track approval to borrow $2.5 billion. Almost $500 million was used within days to exit agreements known as interest-rate swaps that Harvard had entered to finance expansion in Allston, across the Charles River from its main campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The swaps, which assumed that interest rates would rise, proved so toxic that the 373-year-old institution agreed to pay banks a total of almost $1 billion to terminate them. Most of the wrong-way bets were made in 2004, when Lawrence Summers, now President Barack Obama’s economic adviser, led the university. Cranes were recently removed from the construction site of a $1 billion science center that was to be the expansion’s centerpiece, a reminder of Summers’s ambition. The school suspended work on the building last week.

“For nonprofits, this is going to be written up as a case study of what not to do,” said Mark Williams, a finance professor at Boston University, who specializes in risk management and has studied Harvard’s finances. “Harvard throws itself out as a beacon of what to do in higher learning. Clearly, there have been major missteps.”...

Summers, who left Harvard in 2006, declined to comment. As president and as a member of the Harvard Corp., the university’s seven-member ruling body, Summers approved the decision to use the swaps....

Harvard’s failed bet helped plunge the school into a liquidity crisis in late 2008. Concerned that its losses might worsen, the school borrowed money to terminate the swaps at the nadir of their value, only to see the market for such agreements begin to recover weeks later...
At one point, Summers starts to sound like Bernie Madoff:
In the 1990s, Harvard began amassing 220 acres (89 hectares) for construction near Harvard Business School and its football stadium, located in Allston. In June 2005, Summers unveiled his vision for a campus expansion replete with new laboratories, dormitories and classrooms, renovated bridges and a pedestrian tunnel beneath the water. The Allston project was to transform an industrial and working-class neighborhood of two-family wood homes and small shops by building two 500,000-square-foot (46,000-square-meter) science complexes and a redrawn street grid.

Harvard was flush at the time, with an endowment of $22.6 billion that had returned an average of 16 percent during the previous 10 fiscal years. Summers told Faculty of Arts & Sciences professors in May 2004 that he hoped they wouldn’t be “preoccupied with the constraints imposed by resources, for Harvard was fortunate to have many deeply loyal friends,” according to minutes of a faculty meeting.

“Harvard would be able to generate adequate resources,” according to the minutes. “The only real limitation faced by the Faculty was the limit of its imagination.”...

While Harvard Corp. is ultimately responsible for the school’s financial decisions, the losses sustained by the school in almost every financial domain -- the endowment, cash account and swaps -- suggest that oversight was lax, said Harry Lewis, a Harvard alumnus, computer science professor and former dean of Harvard College.

Harvard not only lost money on the swaps last year. The value of its endowment tumbled a record 30 percent to $26 billion from its peak of $36.9 billion in June 2008, and its cash account lost $1.8 billion, according to Harvard’s most recent annual report.

“They have a structural problem,” Lewis said in a telephone interview. “There’s something systemically wrong with Harvard Corp. It’s too small, too secretive, too closed and not supported by enough eyeballs looking at the risks they are taking.


  1. Gee, Summers petitioned the board to ignore economic law and consider only their limitless imaginations? Sounds like nothing much has changed, then.