Harvard's Black Hole

Wall Street Confidential.
December 20,2008

by Edward Jay Epstein


Harvard University's admission that it lost $8 billion from its $36 billion endowment fund, as staggering as it sounds, may grossly underestimate the true magnitude of the loss between from July 1 through Oct. 31 2008. According to a source close the Harvard Management Corporation (HMC), which runs the fund for Harvard, the loss is closer to $18 billion if the losses on the fund’s illiquid investment are realistically appraised.
To be sure, the highly-talented and highly incentivized– MBAs at HMC did exceedingly well for Harvard during the early years of the new millennium. From 2000 to 2008, they more than quadrupled the notional value of Harvard’s wealth through a strategy that involved shifting the lion’s share of Harvard’s money from American stocks, bonds and cash to to highly esoteric investment which were not only illiquid but whose imputed value often could not be easily determined by outside parties. So, by the time the bubble burst in the fall of 2008, less than a fifth of Harvard’s endowment fund was invested in exchange-listed stocks and bonds. Where was the rest of Harvard’s money? Nearly 28% of Harvard Endowment fund was in what the fund manager’s called “real assets,” a category comprised of timber forest and arable land in remote areas, commercial real estate participators, and huge stockpiles of oil and other physical commodities. Such “real assets” plunged in value, if they could be sold, much more severely than the stock market averages. Oil, for example, one of the fund’s largest investment, lost about two-thirds of its value. Another huge chunk of the endowment was in private equity placements and hedge funds which imposed restrictions on withdrawals. In the case of so-called “gated” hedge funds, some of which suffered enormous losses, Harvard could only extract its investment by selling its participation at a steep discount to a “secondary” hedge fund. Another 11 percent of Harvard’s money had been sunk in volatile emerging markets. Here the investments took a double hit: First, the local stock markets collapsed in most of these countries, with, for example, Russian stocks, losing 80%, of their value. Second, on top of these losses. the local currencies lost much of their value against the dollar, with the Brazilian Real, for example losing 40% of its value. Given the true cost of getting its money out of this financial exotica, my knowledgeable source finds the claim by Harvard’s money managers that the fund only lost 22 percent not only “purely pollyannaish” but self-serving (they got increased bonuses for 2008). But while Harvard’s money managers may chose to look through rose color glasses at the value of their portfolio , Harvard University, which relies on the interest from its endowment fund for one-third its budget, needs to be more realistic. As its President, Drew Faust, noted in letter to the Harvard faculty, “We need to be prepared to absorb unprecedented endowment losses and plan for a period of greater financial constrain.”
The collateral damage goes far beyond the ivy-covered walls of Harvard. Money managers at other non-profit institutions, no doubt inspired by the dazzling success of the Harvard Management Corporation in rapidly multiplying the notional value of its endowment fund adopted similar strategies, including plunging their funds into the murky get-rich-fast universe of illiquid investments. Consider, for example, the adventures of CalPERS, the giant pension fund of the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, I which heavily invested in the same sort of “real assets” as Harvard. Leveraging its own funds with borrowed money, it bought so much undeveloped real acreage, that by 2008 it became the largest private land owner in America, and as the real estate bubble expanded, it marked up the notional value of its portfolio accordingly. Then came the subprime debacle, and the real estate bubble imploded, leaving Calpers with unsalable land and, because of its borrowed funds, a 103% loss. Together with other losses in hedge fund and conventional investments, Calpers found that it had lost nearly 40% of the value of its entire pension fund. In Calpers’s case, it had little choice other than to realistically report its enormous losses since it had pension obligations that now might require raising money from local governments in California. Other nonprofit funds with more leeway, such as Harvard, have yet to fully come to grips with the problematic value of their illiquid investments.