Members of the Puerto Rican diaspora have joined student activists and financial reform groups in a weeklong campaign to target university endowments profiting from Puerto Rican debt.
At Harvard University on Wednesday, the coalition called on the institution’s $37 billion endowment, the world’s largest, to divest from its $2 billion commitment with the Baupost Group. In October, The Intercept identified Baupost, a Boston-based hedge fund managed by billionaire Seth Klarman, as a large holder of one type of Puerto Rican debt. The fund had been hiding $911 million in COFINA bonds, a debt instrument backed by sales tax receipts, through a shell corporation named Decagon Holdings.
A disclosure last week from the COFINA bondholders said that Baupost’s investment had increased to $931 million. Klarman has consistently dismissed cries for debt cancellation for Puerto Rico, saying the island would be better off in the long run repaying its debts. Baupost bought the bonds on the cheap and would reap a huge payday if paid back at face value.
Klarman is a major GOP donor and supporter of the charter school movement; he is also an outspoken critic of President Donald Trump.
Bearing a large banner reading “Harvard Divest from Baupost,” hundreds of activists marched at Harvard Yard on Wednesday. Members of the Harvard Student Labor Action Movement participated in the protest, along with union groups, community organizers affiliated with the Center for Popular Democracy, and anti-hedge fund activists with the coalition Hedge Clippers.
A report issued by Hedge Clippers this week detailed how Harvard’s investment with Baupost was harming Puerto Rico. “Along with other vulture funds, [Baupost] is waging an aggressive campaign to force Puerto Rico to pay creditors — rather than pay for basic services or vital infrastructure,” the report states. “In other words, Baupost, on behalf of Harvard and other clients, is trying to get its hands on money that should be going toward a just recovery in Puerto Rico.”
The situation highlights the role college endowments play in propping up hedge funds, whose moneymaking strategies have often been criticized as anti-worker and predatory. According to Business Insider, one-third of all hedge fund assets under management come from endowments and public pension funds. Endowments had been limiting their exposure to hedge funds, due to disappointing returns and high fees, but that trend has slowed. Harvard’s endowment recently paused some of its investments in the fossil fuels industry, but would not commit to a full divestment.
Princeton ($995 million) and Yale ($710 million) currently have large investments in Baupost, according to filings with the IRS. Other colleges that have invested with Baupost in the past five years include Cornell, Barnard, Berklee College of Music, Brandeis, Clark University, Denison University, Holy Cross, Pomona, and the University of Chicago.
Julio López Varona, state director of Make the Road Connecticut and a leader in the Puerto Rico justice movement, told The Intercept that the coalition sent letters to all these universities urging them to divest. Only one of them, Yale University, responded, and they said the Baupost investment was ethically appropriate. “We decided that this was as good a time as ever to escalate our actions,” Varona said.
The coalition will be protesting at Yale on Thursday and the University of Phoenix, which is owned by Puerto Rican bondholders Apollo Education Group, on Friday. Related protests later this month will target Santander Bank, which played a key role in creating the debt instruments that spawned the crisis in Puerto Rico.
Harvard’s $2 billion commitment to Baupost is over 5 percent of its total endowment, an unusually large share. Based on the portion of Baupost’s assets invested in Puerto Rican bonds, Harvard could hold around $60 million in Puerto Rican debt through the investment.
Klarman is both an alumni and major donor to Harvard, which could explain the relationship. The Klarman Cell Observatory sits in Boston, courtesy a $32.5 million Klarman gift to the Eli and Edythe L. Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT in 2012. Klarman Hall, a conference center and performance space being built at the Harvard Business School, is slated for opening this fall.
A significant amount of Klarman’s funding comes from university endowments. “If we can get Harvard and Yale to divest, it will have a major impact on his portfolio,” said Varona.
“If we can get Harvard and Yale to divest, it will have a major impact on [Seth Klarman’s] portfolio”— Julio López Varona
Harvard has endorsed aid to Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria, but the activists say this cannot square with how Harvard’s money is being put to use to immiserate the island’s citizens. Indeed, the island’s government and its fiscal control board has proposed $450 million in cuts over the next three years for its only public university, the University of Puerto Rico. That comes to nearly half the college’s total budget. Over 300 K-12 schools have already closed due to austerity measures.
Just this week, Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló announced plans to attempt to privatize the island’s electric power authority. Rosselló’s latest budget includes numerous austerity measures, but adds that the island will be unable to pay down debts over the next five years.
The Baupost Group declined to comment on the protest. Patrick McKiernan with Harvard Management Company, the university’s endowment, said it does not comment on specific investments. Yale has yet to respond to The Intercept, though it did tell the Boston Globe, “we continue to be aware of the situation and monitor it.”
Student-led university endowment divestment campaigns go back to the 1980s and anti-apartheid protests against South Africa. “There’s a lot of energy around this,” Varona said. “Many groups want to keep going.”