How Larry Summers really badly botched Harvard's finances
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, under Summers’s regime and beyond. And when the market crashed in the fall of 2008, Harvard would pay dearly, as $1.8 billion in cash simply vanished. Indeed, it is still paying, in the form of tighter budgets, deferred expansion plans, and big interest payments on bonds issued to cover the losses. . . .
In the Summers years, from 2001 to 2006, nothing was on auto-pilot. He was the unquestioned commander, a dominating personality with the talent to move a balkanized institution like Harvard, but also a man unafflicted, former colleagues say, with self-doubt in matters of finance.
Certainly, when it came to handling Harvard’s cash account, the former US Treasury secretary had no doubts. Widely considered one of the most brilliant economists of his generation, Summers pushed to invest 100 percent of Harvard’s cash with the endowment and had to be argued down to 80 percent, financial executives say. The cash account grew to $5.1 billion during his tenure, more than the entire endowment of all but a dozen or so colleges and universities.
Summers, now head of President Obama’s economic team, declined to be quoted on his handling of Harvard finances. A friend of his who is familiar with Harvard finances said Summers was warning of growing risks in the global markets by 2007, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The friend, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of Summers’s current position, said, “In the years after Summers left, market conditions and Harvard’s liquidity changed dramatically. The university’s financial strategies could have and should have changed with them.’’ . . .