As far as I am aware there are only four legal ways to become seriously rich in a short period of time: to inherit or marry into money, to hit a lottery or sales jackpot, to become the CEO of a large public company or investment fund in the USA or to leverage one’s way into wealth. Out of the four, only leverage is not fundamentally determined by destiny or luck.
Not surprisingly, this explains why, throughout history, leverage never ceased to fascinate people as a kind of “Aladdin's lamp” for immense wealth. In fact, the history of financial innovation is little more than a continual re-invention of some form of leverage. Leverage or gearing is the percentage of external financing and it is often measured as the ratio of capital to debt or as the ratio of total debt to total assets.
Indeed, credit is an essential element of market capitalism. It allows those with entrepreneurial spirit to invest beyond their own capital and gives those without such spirit the chance to share in the success of entrepreneurship. This means that passive investors must accept a lower return to make it worthwhile for entrepreneurs to take the added risk.
The case to make debt-financed investments applies equally to families and governments. So, in a closed economy this might create an impossible situation where everyone wants to be a net borrower, leaving the central bank as the only net lender by creating the money necessary to fulfill the demand for debt. In such a system those in charge of dispensing credit have an extraordinary power over the fate of the borrowers.
In practice market economies rarely reach this extreme situation for three main reasons. First, many people cannot or do not bother to search for investment opportunities with returns well above the risk free rate of return. In particular, families and governments are often in this situation. Second, many do not have the collateral required by lenders or do not fulfill the requirements to access non-recourse finance. Finally, leverage is a double-edged sword and not all can or know how to cope with the risks of debt-financing.
To understand that there is a thin line between fortune and misery in the use of leverage, imagine that one can invest up to four times the value of his capital to achieve an expected return of 25%. If he succeeds his return will be 100%. But what if instead of an appreciation of 25% there is a loss of 25%? He would be completely wiped out.
The fact that the likelihood of a 25% loss is very small is not enough comfort because it will happen one day. And, if one keeps reinvesting all his proceeds, he will lose all his previous gains. Any roulette player knows this, but people often tend to forget it. Especially when prices have been going always in the same direction, as happened recently in the real estate market (many people had never observed a fall in housing prices).
So is it true that leverage, like death, in the end will always finish by catching us on the wrong side of the bet? Not necessarily, provided that we do not re-leverage all our gains, do not exceed a prudent level of leverage and manage it correctly (for instance by not carrying leveraged positions over-night).
To be prudent one needs to answer the important question of whether there is an optimal level of leverage and what are its determinants. Unfortunately, neither in theory nor in practice can we find an answer to this question.
First, different assets have different levels of volatility (for instance in the last 10 years, intra-day, the Dollar never fell by more than 4.8% in the Euro/Dollar market while in the stock market the shares of Microsoft never fell by more than 12%). Second, in itself, leverage changes the optimal composition of investment portfolios. Thirdly, because the optimal level of leverage may be above what lenders consider safe and lenders are often prone to stampede behavior creating wild fluctuations in what they judge as safe or not.
But, most importantly, at the theoretical level we find ourselves in a difficult position. This is true, even after ignoring the wild fluctuations in banker’s lending limits while considering only the spreads (or mark-ups) they charge to compensate for risk. Theoretically the optimal level can be defined as the level of leverage that maximizes the difference between the returns achieved with debt finance and those obtained without any leverage. The problem lies in the fact that the two curves depicting the marginal efficiency of capital cannot be derived separately.
In the absence of estimates for the optimal level of leverage, prudence dictates that one should err on the down side by keeping a reasonable margin below the level of debt capacity acceptable to lenders. This can be easily defined in relation to margin requirements or the present value of future free cash-flows. With this proviso and knowledge of the nature of debt-financing, investors may be able to turn a potential foe into a friend.