Thursday, July 18, 2013

Larry Summers's Billion-Dollar Bad Bet at Harvard

Matthew Klein at WaPo reminds us of the reckless bet that Larry Summers made on interest rates when he was president of Harvard. The Harvard endowment suffered serious losses. These were the risky investments that Iris Mack warned Summers about in an email and which resulted in her getting fired. Summers is now being considered for chairmanship of the Federal Reserve, where he would be in charge of interest rate policy:

During the financial crisis, Harvard lost nearly $1 billion because of some unusual and ill-judged interest rate swaps that Summers implemented in the early 2000s during his troubled tenure as the university's president.

Interest rate swaps allow borrowers to lock in a fixed interest rate on floating-rate debt, which can be good to hedge against short-term uncertainty. The problem with Harvard was that Summers wanted to lock in interest rates for money that the university hadn't actually borrowed and wasn't planning on borrowing for a very long time.

There aren't a lot of ways to interpret this exotic instrument except as a bet that the future level of interest rates would be higher than the market pricing implied at the time. That bet was wrong, and Harvard lost a billion dollars. Anonymous finance blogger Epicurean Dealmaker puts it well:
"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."

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