As per this recent article in (of all places) Vanity Fair, Harvard (University), which only one year ago had an endowment greater than the GDP of half of the countries participating in the IMF at 36.9 Billion, may now be on the brink of financial disaster. Between last July and last October, the first four months of Harvard’s most recent fiscal year, Harvard’s endowment lost 22% — a whopping 8 Billion, or more money than Columbia University has in its entire endowment of 7.1 Billion. Furthermore, last December, Harvard’s President warned that a total loss of 30% was expected for the fiscal year (which equates to more than 11.1 Billion) while journalists like Jay Epstein of the Huffington Post argued that, adjusted for the true value of Harvard’s liquid assets, the endowment’s losses were closer to 50% (or 18.4 Billion). Harvard has not yet released its annual financial report, but even though, thanks to a slight economic rebound, losses are expected to be in-line with losses at other universities, in the 23% to 25% range (or the 8.5B to 9.2B range), that’s still a devastating loss.
While it likely won’t spell the end of Harvard, or the Ivy League, it’s sure going to have an impact, one way or another, on the quality of education and life in general at Harvard as faculty after faculty and department after department struggles to implement budget cuts of 20% or more. Budget cuts of this magnitude in any University will generally mean the loss of new facilities and equipment, classes, lab instructors, teaching assistants, and faculty.
So what happened? And what spend management lessons can we take from it?
The vanity fair article had a great summary of many of the actions that likely contributed to the fallout. Let’s review the important ones:
- Between 2000 and 2008, Harvard added 6.2 Million square feet in new projects that cost 4.3 Billion.
It also started the Allston Science Complex, now on hold, which came with a price tag of 1.2 Billion. The total expansion price tag represented almost 20% of its total endowment in 2005.
- In response to this crisis, Harvard sold 2.5 Billion worth of bonds last December and increased it’s debt to over 6 Billion.
This move, for an amount greater than the GDP of Swaziland, will cost Harvard an average of 0.5 Billion a year through 2038 (according to Standard & Poor’s).
- (Forgotten?) Interest rate swaps from the early 2000’s that only offered protection if interest rates rose.
This resulted in Harvard facing an additional 1 Billion loss.
- It increased its annual operating budget 67% between 1998 (from 2.1 Billion) and 2008 (to 3.5 Billion).
This is more than twice the rate of inflation, which was roughly 29% over the same period.
- It increased student subsidies 270% over the last decade, from 125 Million to 338 Million.
As of 2006, students whose parents earned less than 60,000 a year, a figure well above the median U.S. household income of 50,000, could attend Harvard free. As of 2007, students whose parents earned less than 180,000 a year would pay at most 10% of their family’s annual income in tuition.
- In 1990, soon after (Jack) Meyer took over financial management at the HMC, Harvard diversified from traditional equity & bond investments into a diversified portfolio that contained pretty much every exotic investment there is.
Private equity, real estate, oil, gas, fixed-income arbitrage, timberland, hedge funds, high-tech start-ups, foreign equities, credit-default swaps, interest-rate swaps, cross-currency swaps, commodities, venture-capital funds, and junk bonds were just some of the investments.
- In the late 1990s, Meyer’s best portfolio managers started to leave in droves.
Meyer paid them based on performance, and in the late 1990s, some of them were making over 10 Million annually. The WSJ got their hands on the story, resentment followed, and the top performers left to work at, or start, funds where no one had to know how much they made.
- Finally, in 2005, Meyer himself left and it took the HMC almost a year to find a replacement.
The reduced staff, with no leadership and no particular investment strategy, foolishly continued to invest in the latest, and most glamourous, hedge funds (even though the mania had peaked).
- Meyer’s replacement, (Mohamed) El-Erian, continued Meyer’s aggressive approach to Harvard’s. portfolio and added even more risk.
Emerging market investments and tail-risk hedging were two examples of new strategies added to the pool
- Less than two years later, El-Erian returned to PIMCO.
It took four months to find his replacement, (Jane) Mendillo — whose recent management experience was a fund twenty-two times smaller.
So what spend management lessons are there to be learned? Lots! But I believe that these are the important ones.
- One way hedges only work one way.
This goes doubly true if you’re hedging interest rates. If a shift in the opposite direction can also hurt you, make sure that you either have a second hedging (or swapping) strategy or that you include cancellation/buy-out clauses which you can invoke at the first sign of trouble (and actively monitor for that trouble).
- Be wary of over-investing in fixed-assets.
While they look good on the balance sheet, they can eat up a large chunk of your cash flow and cause you problems if your cash flow tightens rapidly. Sometimes you should just outsource (or rent).
- You need a risk management strategy for your risk management strategy.
HMC’s financial success was largely due to the visionary and focussed leadership of one man — Meyer — who built an elite team to carry out the strategy. The departure of the leader and most of the core team resulted in the loss of the ability to sustain and manage the strategy, which created a risk much greater than any individual investment. Your risk management strategy must include a succession plan and a blueprint to effectively monitor and continue the activities in the event of the loss of one or more key people until those key people are replaced. Not only must their responsibilities be documented, but so must everything they did, are doing, and must continue to do to prevent greater risk. Otherwise, you could forget to cancel a swap and lose millions (or, in Harvard’s case, thousands of millions).
- You must control your year-over-year operating budgets.
If your income is relatively stable and generally doesn’t increase faster than a fixed rate (that can be tied to inflation), neither should your operating expenses. It’s a disaster waiting to happen if your operating expenses (continue to) increase when your revenues decrease.
- Loss leaders can result in huge losses if you only sell one product!
Lower prices is a greater way to grab new market share, but it might not be worth it if you have to take a loss on each product you sell. While 10% of the Harvard operating budget for student aid was reasonable in 2008 when the operating budget was 3.5 Billion, it gets expensive if the budget falls 25%! The same holds for your company … if you’re counting on future revenue to make up a new product launch loss, with the fickleness of the market, it might not be there!
- Don’t get greedy.
While high risk investments can pay off handsomely in a boom, they can also result in devastating losses in a bust. If you don’t have the money to lose, don’t take high risks. This also means that you don’t switch to an unproven sole-source supplier for a key component when only a handful of suppliers can make the part, that you don’t over-source or sole-source perishable or limited-supply commodities from natural disaster zones, and that you don’t just throw key functions over-the-wall to a new, unproven, BPO.