Failing at Harvard: Ivy Cash King Tumbles

But Harvard was supposed to be different. In the 15 years through last June, it returned an annual 15.7% versus 9.2% for the S&P. Meyer landed at Harvard in 1990 after scoring big investment returns at the Rockefeller Foundation. In an unorthodox move for an endowment chief, Meyer built a Wall Street-like trading operation and managed most of HMC's money in-house. It looked like a giant hedge fund, and it had paychecks to match. A high-level HMC manager would make as much as $35 million in good years. Those sums triggered what became an annual Harvard tradition: first, the disclosure (compelled by tax laws applying to nonprofits) of the HMC bonuses, followed by an outcry led by the late William Strauss and a group of Harvard alumni from his class of 1969.

HMC not only became a place to make big bonuses, it was also where you could make a name for yourself and become a "crimson puppy," meaning launching your own private equity firm or hedge fund with Harvard's backing. One of the puppies, Jeffrey Larson, left in 2004 to start Sowood Capital. That pile of smart money cratered in 2007, losing $350 million for Harvard.

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By September 2005, Meyer himself decided it was time to go. Some people say it was because of the persistent criticism about bonuses, which were reduced near the end of his tenure; others say he had run-ins with former U.S. Treasury Secretaries Lawrence Summers and Robert Rubin, who assumed Harvard leadership positions at the start of the decade. Meyer denies both reasons and says 16 years at Harvard was simply enough.

Meyer formed his own hedge fund, Convexity Capital, which seems to have held up well in the current market. He took with him the Harvard heads of domestic and international fixed income and both their staffs, as well as the chief risk officer, chief technology officer and chief operating officer. The survivors were demoralized. "You walked onto the trading floor, and it was just 10% full," says someone who was there at the time. "There was a sense that if you were good, you left."

Five months later, Mohamed El-Erian, now 50, took over. The son of an Egyptian diplomat, he had risen to deputy director of the International Monetary Fund before joining giant bond manager Pimco. He seemed perfect for smoothing relations between HMC and the university. Filling the hole that Meyer left was another matter.

One solution: Don't even try, just hand over all of the endowment to outside money managers. But El-Erian insisted on keeping things intact. He talked of the "structural advantages" of investing a big endowment backed by an AAA-rated university, such as allowing you to borrow at low rates when making leveraged bets. The former Pimco emerging-market superstar also believed that the developing countries offered big profits to smart investors like HMC because they had become less risky thanks to ample dollar reserves and a growing middle class.

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