Not Smart

Harvard University has announced that it paid hundreds of millions of dollars to get out of interest rate swaps.  The school also said that its General Operating Account, which is the principal account that funds the schools’ operations, lost close to half its value in the last fiscal year, falling from $6.6 billion to $3.7 billion.  The value of the school’s endowment fund, on the other hand, dropped from $36.9 billion to $26 billion during the fiscal year.

What’s interesting about this story is not that Harvard’s investment accounts lost value — virtually all investment portfolios, except those invested exclusively in gold, have declined in value since the economy and the credit markets hit the wall last fall — but how much Harvard has lost and the nature of its investments.  Any kind of swap investment is risky; you really have to know what you are doing and what the potential downside risks are to make a properly informed investment decision.  It is curious that Harvard would invest hundreds of millions in interest rate swaps.  You have to wonder if its investment advisors really described the risks to the university body that oversees investments and, if so, whether that body really understood those risks.  As for Harvard’s endowment, losing more than $10 billion in one year is extraordinary.

Many colleges and universities have been aggressively raising money to up their endowments, and it appears that they have been investing those funds with, perhaps, even more aggressiveness.  That seems to defeat the traditional purpose of an endowment fund, which is to provide a financial cushion and regular investment income for the institution.  Given that purpose, you would expect endowment funds to be invested more conservatively, and not in a way in which the endowment fund could conceivably lose more than 25 percent of its value in one year.

If you have been a contributor to a university’s endowment fund, only to see the value of your contribution go poof in the past year, what do you say when the college comes back to you this year to ask for help?