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Why Larry Summers Shouldn't Be Permitted to Run a Dog Pound, Much Less the Federal Reserve

From his bank-centric policies to terrible leadership and sexism, Summers has nothing good to offer the country.
 
 
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I’ve been gobsmacked to see that not only is Larry Summers on various short lists of candidates to become the next Fed chairman, but that Summers is also supposedly closing in on the favorite, Janet Yellen.

In early 2012, Summers was lobbying hard to become the head of the World Bank and didn’t get the nod. The fact that he is now under consideration for a bigger job should set alarm bells off. While Paul Krugman weighs in on both, concluding that Yellen would be the better pick, he’s still far kinder to Summers than the Harvard economist deserves.

The big problem with Summers is not his record on deregulation (although that’s bad enough) or his foot-in-mouth remarks about women in math, or for suggesting that African countries would make for good toxic waste dumps. No, it’s his appalling record the one time he was in a leadership position, as president of Harvard. Summers was unquestionably the worst leader in Harvard’s history.

Summers, unduly impressed with his own economic credentials, overruled two successive presidents of Harvard Management Corporation (the in-house fund management operation chock full of well qualified and paid money managers that invest the Harvard endowment). Not content to let the pros have all the fun, Summers insisted on gambling with the university’s operating funds, which are the monies that come in every year (tuition and board payments, government grants, the payments out of the endowment allotted to the annual budget). His risk-taking left the University with over $2 billion in losses and unwind costs and forced wide-spread budget cuts, even down to getting rid of hot breakfasts. The Boston Globe provided an overview:

It happened at least once a year, every year. In a roomful of a dozen Harvard University financial officials, Jack Meyer, the hugely successful head of Harvard’s endowment, and Lawrence Summers, then the school’s president, would face off in a heated debate. The topic: cash and how the university was managing – or mismanaging – its basic operating funds.

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….

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.

Now Harvard had put some of its large operating budget at risk in speculative investments starting in the 1980s, but Summers ramped it up to a completely new level. Again from the Globe:

The very thing that the former endowment chiefs had worried about and warned of for so long then came to pass. Amid plunging global markets, Harvard would lose not only 27 percent of its $37 billion endowment in 2008, but $1.8 billion of the general operating cash – or 27 percent of some $6 billion invested. Harvard also would pay $500 million to get out of the interest-rate swaps Summers had entered into, which imploded when rates fell instead of rising. The university would have to issue $1.5 billion in bonds to shore up its cash position, on top of another $1 billion debt sale. And there were layoffs, pay freezes, and deep, university-wide budget cuts