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
Without overburdening you with detail on the swaps that blew up Summers’ piggy bank (see this Bloomberg story for details), let there be no doubt that Summers signed up to be a chump to Wall Street. As Epicurean Dealmaker remarked when the Bloomberg expose came out (emphasis ours):
Now forward swaps, or forward start swaps—which behave like normal swaps except the offsetting fixed and floating rate payments are scheduled to start at a date certain in the future—by themselves count as little more than rank interest rate speculation, specifically in this instance as a bet that short-term interest rates will rise in the future. They can make a great deal of sense when an issuer intends to sell bonds in the relatively near future and when the issuer wants to hedge against budgetary uncertainty by converting floating rate obligations into fixed rate debt. That being said, I have rarely encountered a corporate client who feels confident enough about both their absolute funding needs and current and impending market conditions to enter into a forward swap starting more than nine months into the future. Entering into a forward start swap for debt you do not intend to issue up to 20 years in the future sounds like either rank hubris or free money for Wall Street swap desks.
So Summers couldn’t keep his ego out of the way, bullied the people around him, ignored the advice of not one but two presidents of Harvard Management, and left a smoldering pile of losses in his wake. And serious adults are prepared to allow someone with so little maturity and such misplaced self confidence to have major sway over much bigger economic decisions?
Summers’ second big problem is the scandal that led to his ouster at Harvard, which was NOT the “women suck at elite math and sciences” remarks. The university has conveniently let that be assumed to be the proximate cause.
In fact, it was Summers’ long-standing relationship with and protection of Andrei Schleifer, a Harvard economics professor, who was at the heart of a corruption scandal where he used his influential role on a Harvard contract advising on Russian privatization to enrich himself and his wife, his chief lieutenant Jonathan Hay, and other cronies. The US government sued Harvard for breach of contract and Shleifer and Hay for fraud and won. This section comes from a terrifically well reported account in Institutional Investor by David McClintick:
The judge determined that Shleifer and Hay were subject to the conflict-of-interest rules and had tried to circumvent them; that Shleifer engaged in apparent self-dealing; that Hay attempted to “launder” $400,000 through his father and girlfriend; that Hay knew the claims he caused to be submitted to AID were false; and that Shleifer and Hay conspired to defraud the U.S. government by submitting false claims.
On August 3, 2005, the parties announced a settlement under which Harvard was required to pay $26.5 million to the U.S. government, Shleifer $2 million and Hay between $1 million and $2 million, depending on his earnings over the next decade. Shleifer was barred from participating in any AID project for two years and Hay for five years. Shleifer and Zimmerman were required by terms of the settlement to take out a $2 million mortgage on their Newton house. None of the defendants acknowledged any liability under the settlement. (Forum Financial also settled its lawsuit against Harvard, Shleifer and Hay under undisclosed terms.
And while Harvard can’t be held singularly responsible for the plutocratic land-grab in Russia, the fact that its project leaders decided to feed at the trough sure didn’t help:
Reinventing Russia was never going to be easy, but Harvard botched a historic opportunity. The failure to reform Russia’s legal system, one of the aid program’s chief goals, left a vacuum that has yet to be filled and impedes the country’s ability to confront economic and financial challenges today.
And while Summers was not responsible for Shleifer getting the contract, he was a booster and later protector of Shleifer:
Summers wasn’t president of Harvard when Shleifer’s mission to Moscow was coming apart. But as a Harvard economics professor in the 1980s, a World Bank and Treasury official in the 1990s, and Harvard’s president since 2001, Summers was positioned uniquely to influence Shleifer’s career path, to shape US aid to Russia and Shleifer’s role in it and even to shield Shleifer after the scandal broke. Though Summers, as Harvard president, recused himself from the school’s handling of the case, he made a point of taking aside Jeremy Knowles, then the dean of the faculty of arts and sciences, and asking him to protect Shleifer.
And the protection Shleifer got was considerable:
Knowles tells Institutional Investor that he does not remember Summers’ approaching him about Shleifer… However, not long after Summers says he intervened on the professor’s behalf, Knowles promoted Shleifer from professor of economics to a named chair, the Whipple V.N. Jones professorship.
Shleifer’s legal position changed on June 28, 2004, when Judge Woodlock ruled that he and Hay had conspired to defraud the U.S. government and had violated conflict-of-interest regulations. Still, there was no indication that the Summers administration had initiated disciplinary proceedings. To the contrary, efforts were seemingly made to divert attention from the growing scandal. The message from the top at Harvard was, “No problem — Andrei Shleifer is a star,” says one senior Harvard figure…
One instance was a meeting early in the academic year that began in September 2004, less than two months after the federal court formally adjudicated Shleifer’s liability for conspiring to defraud the U.S. government. A faculty member asked [Dean] Kirby why Harvard should defend a professor who had been found liable for conspiring to commit fraud. The second confrontation came early in the current academic year when another professor asked Kirby why Harvard should pay a settlement of $26.5 million and legal fees estimated at between $10 million and $15 million for legal violations by a single professor and his employee, about which it was unaware. On both occasions Kirby is said to have turned red in the face and angrily cut off discussion.
On at least one other occasion, Summers himself told members of the faculty of arts and sciences that the millions of dollars that Harvard paid in damages did not come from the budget of the faculty of arts and sciences, but didn’t say where the money came from. Those listening inferred he meant that the matter shouldn’t be of concern to the faculty and that they shouldn’t raise it, a curious notion, given that Shleifer was one of their own…
Shleifer has never acknowledged doing anything wrong. Summers has said nothing. And so far as is known, there has been no internal investigation or sanction. “An observer trying to make sense of the University’s position on Shleifer, Ogletree and Tribe is driven to an unhappy conclusion. Defiance seems to be a better way to escape institutional opprobrium than confession and apology. . . . And most of all being a close personal friend of the president probably does one no harm.”
But for the faculty, which had already had frictions with Summers, the Russia scandal was the final straw. Copies of the Institutional Investor article were stuffed in the mailbox of every faculty member the morning of the no-confidence vote that forced Summers’ resignation.
And that’s before we get to Summers’ role in the ouster of Brooksley Born over credit default swaps, and his role as Treasury secretary in supporting the passage of Gramm–Leach–Bliley and the repeal of Glass Steagall (admittedly so shot full of holes at that point as to be close to a dead letter, but still necessary to allow Traveler and Citigroup to merge). Yet Summers has refused to recant any of these actions.
So with this record, it’s hard to watch Paul Krugman yet again tarnish his good reputation endorsing, even in a careful way, a colossally failed proposition like Larry Summers (Krugman put both Yellen and Summers in the “I know and admire” category). Take that back. Summers is your man if you are a banker, looter, or plutocrat.
But given that (per the Ron Suskind book Confidence Men), Obama increasingly couldn’t abide Summers, and Obama wouldn’t nominate Summers for the less influential World Bank position, one has to wonder why his name is suddenly being bruited about as a strong contender for the Fed chair. It may simply be the dint of Summers’ PR efforts.
But I worry another play is afoot. As much as Yellen and Summers are expected to take largely similar postures on monetary policy, Yellen is anticipated to be less of a bank booster than Summers. So Wall Street is likely to be pushing Summers’ candidacy. But the real play may be that the insiders know that Summers won’t hold up well under protracted scrutiny, and at a late date, Timothy Geithner will be pushed to the fore. I can only hope that Geithner (due to his lack of monetary economy chops) won’t be seen as an acceptable alternative, but I would not bet on being so lucky.