Kim: Investments Office deserves trust now

Watching the deterioration of financial markets and the broader global economy has been dismaying, to say the least.

Since the third quarter of 2007, financial institutions have written down in excess of $900 billion worldwide. The IMF recently estimated that losses will be on the order of $1.4 trillion (revising it from a previously estimated $945 billion). The government has had to act in unprecedented ways, from the bailout of Bear Stearns in March of this year to its equity injections of billions of dollars into financial institutions most recently.

The balance sheet of the Federal Reserve has more than doubled this year, with assets increasing from $915 billion to $2.2 trillion. The lack of access to credit is leading to increasing numbers of companies declaring bankruptcy because of their inability to meet funding requirements. Just yesterday, U.S. Government bonds traded at a negative yield. To make matters worse, the top five retail lenders — that is, providers of mortgages, loans and credit cards — have announced plans to cut credit lines to consumers now.

In layman terms, this means that hundreds of thousands of people are losing their jobs, homes and wealth (in the form of disposable income, loans, savings and post-retirement benefits). And the outlook for 2009 is even bleaker.

To date, however, the bubble we live in at Yale has not burst. Surely, the number of jobs available in finance has diminished precipitously. In contrast to sharp losses and economic turmoil beyond the walls of New Haven, our situation at Yale has not worsened. Like my fellow students, I do not know how Yale’s endowment has performed in the last four months, although, given Harvard’s recently announced 22 percent loss, it’s safe to assume we are also in the red for the fiscal year. But I know for sure that thanks to the work of David Swensen and everyone at the Yale Investments Office, we will be in a better fiscal position than other universities, regardless of the severity of the impending recession.

Perhaps the administration’s plan to build two new residential colleges will be postponed, and various cost-cutting measures will be instituted. Thanks to the endowment, however, financial aid will still be available, and student access to academic resources will not be severely affected. I, for one, am very thankful to everyone at the Investments Office.

I thank Hugh Baran for his column “Debunking investment myths” (12/4). His message, best expressed in his final paragraph, is a meritorious one, and deserves the attention of Yale’s students, faculty and administrators. But the moment for voicing concerns of “responsible and ethical investing” is not now.

An understanding of what is going on that comes from more than reading newspaper headlines will show anyone how difficult it has been for fund managers to make money in the past year. The turmoil surrounding financial markets is unprecedented. The VIX index, a measure of market volatility, has continuously hit record highs in the past year. The ability for fund managers to generate returns has been abysmal at best. Year to date, the S&P is down over 40 percent. The Credit Suisse/Tremont Hedge Fund Index is down over 15 percent on the year. Some of the world’s biggest and best-known funds are posting double digit losses and are suspending withdrawals.

Consider, then, that Yale posted a 4.5 percent return for the fiscal year 2008 (the year ending June 30, 2008). Regardless of how the endowment has performed since then, Yale owes all the people at the Investments Office gratitude, not a sit-in. The success of Dr. Swensen and his team has allowed our learning experience to be uninterrupted, despite the increasingly difficult conditions in financial markets.

There will be a time when it will be appropriate for students to question the ethicality of the investments Yale makes. For now, however, we should leave that to the Yale Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility. The administration at Harvard has already expressed concerns regarding the effects of deteriorating performance of the endowment on the day-to-day operations of the university. For one, the administration has announced plans to issue up to $2.5 billion in bonds in order to repay debt, and will be taking “hard looks” at staffing levels and compensation. Precisely for reasons such as these, we should let Dr. Swensen and the YIO to do their work with as little interruptions as possible … for now.

Marcelo Kim is a senior in Morse College.

Comments

  • Trust

    Under this logic, we ought to have blindly trusted Bush after 9/11.

    Oh wait …

  • Y11

    I am incredibly grateful for the financial acumen of Swensen, Takahashi, and all the rest. But I agree with Trust, and further don't believe that pursuing a successful investment strategy to weather these financial times is not incompatible with an examination of Yale's endowment ethics.

  • Avinash Gandhi

    Marcelo,

    Thanks for an informative and well-thought out article. I agree that Dr. Swensen's investing skill has been and will continue to be incredibly good for Yale and its students. However, it is extremely important to acknowledge that investment flows have their most powerful effects in fostering business growth, which in turn fosters economic growth. By investing in companies with less-than-ethical (even if legal) business practices, Yale is essentially condoning a business paradigm that pursues profitability at any cost - a paradigm that is unquestionably negative, not only for citizens, but for the economy as well. It is this paradigm that led to this financial collapse, and it is this paradigm that must be addressed for the world to recover and growth again in a way that is both sustainable and addresses the needs of everyone.

    Despite the fact that we are in a recession, with credit markets shrinking and risk premiums incredibly high, now is the best time to revamp an investment strategy along more socially responsible lines. Every business now needs money more than ever before, and the supply of capital is greatly constrained. By focusing investment on businesses with socially responsible products and practices, we can ensure that the companies that emerge from this recession with the highest growth rates (and therefore returns) are those that are the best for the world around us. To invest otherwise would be to both ignore the costs externalities have on our society and allow the paradigm that lets these externalities occur because they generate strong returns for small groups of people continue.

    There has never been a more opportune and important time to question the "returns at all costs" ideology. Indeed, it got us into this mess, and only by solving it can we both get out and hedge against such a thing happening again.

  • ^^^^^

    #3, I am curious, have you received financial aid from Yale? If so, don’t you think you should return it, since the blood of the workers is paying for your comfy stay here?

  • @#4

    Yes, why didn't anyone think of that before? It is totally reasonable that anyone on financial aid, i.e. is not independently wealthy, should just shut up, and not make moral claims. And people on welfare shouldn't complain about the war in Iraq. Don't bite the hand!

    Next time you want to complain about potholes, think again. You're using the road so shut up.