Every one wants to blame the financial crisis on leverage. There was a glib comment on the blog the other day which reflects a common view:
"Sad to see the "cure" for overleveraged, undercollateralized balance sheets to be... more leveraged finance."
No offense to Jonathan intended, as his view probably reflects the majority of opinions among those who follow finance. But I find blaming leverage per se to be a weak argument. Thus I don't see bringing some degree of leverage back into the market as a negative. Furthermore, I don't think that simply blaming leverage will be constructive as we try to construct a regulatory structure to prevent similar meltdowns in the future.
Let's consider the case of a CDO of ABS. To make life simple, we'll assume CDO was constructed from mezzanine bonds from HEL deals. This would be securities similar to the ABX 2007-1 A index, basically the segment of major home equity deals from early 2007 which were originally rated "A."
The HEL deals were structured something like the following (although I'm presenting a simplistic version, the point stands.) I'm assuming $100 million original face, with the underlying mortgages having a 6.75% rate.
All principal cash flows to the Senior until it is entirely repaid, then to the Mezz, then to the Subs. Interest payments are only made to the mezz and subs if the senior interest obligations have been met. (Don't get hung up on the math right now, it won't be important to my point. If you have questions about ABS and/or CDOs, e-mail me. Accruedint AT gmail.com).
In a CDO of ABS transaction, the CDO would buy a series of mezz bonds, then repackage them into a similar senior/sub structure. So now let's say we have a $100 million CDO which buys the mezz of 50 different HEL deals, all structured similarly to above.
The CDO builds its own senior/sub structure as follows:
Same deal as above, where the senior gets all principal and interest due before the other pieces. Only once all other classes get their principal and interest does any cash flow accrue to the Equity. One might think of the sub/mezz/senior pieces of the CDO as providing leverage to the Equity. Since the total assets in this deal is $100 million, with equity of $4 million, we have 25x leverage.
Its easy to see why the CDO of ABS world came crashing down. The ABX 2007-1 A is now trading at $2.5, or a 97.5% loss vs. the original face. So the CDO built on securities similar to ABX would have almost all principal in the deal wiped out entirely. Even the senior most piece of the CDO, which would have been rated AAA originally, would have suffered huge losses.
But was it the 25x leverage that was the problem? Not at all. Substitute any number for the equity, and the structure still doesn't work, because the underlying collateral is crap. If you are going to try to tell me that leverage caused the meltdown, then you'd need to show me how a different leverage figure would have prevented the problem. Here is an example of a leveraged vehicle that fails at any haircut.
Now one might say that if the ratings agencies would have required more overcollateralization, these CDOs never would have been created. Perhaps. But again, if leverage isn't the problem with the security, then allowing too much leverage wasn't the ratings agencies' primary mistake. The real problem is that the ratings agencies never considered the binary nature of these structures. If you build a CDO based on all mezz consumer loan ABS, and consumer loans perform poorly, then the whole deal is threatened. We didn't need catastrophic losses on consumer loans to impair the senior-most pieces of these CDOs. Had sub-prime consumer loans suffered a mere 10% loss rate, the CDO would have suffered a 50% loss rate! That would have resulted in the "AAA" rated Senior piece suffering a 30% loss. That isn't acceptable for a AAA-rated asset.
It isn't like the ratings agencies should have rated these types of CDOs AAA at some lower leverage level. They shouldn't have rated these types of CDOs at all. We talk about toxic legacy assets. These CDOs were toxic from the word go.
Now consider this. Why didn't the ratings agencies figure that consumer loans could go all go sour at once. Why did they assume that a 10% loss rate was nearly impossible? Or if you want to damn the ratings agencies as mere minions of the investment banks, why were people buying these CDOs? Those investors must also have assumed that the 10% loss rate was nearly impossible. Else they wouldn't have bought the bonds at all. So why was every one so confident?
We all want to blame some nefarious party, because that would feel better. It is more satisfying to think we were all duped by the evil geniuses on Wall Street. But what if it was as simple as the Fed having succeeded in dampening the business cycle that people started to assume volatility would remain permanently low? What if the fact that previous disturbances that could have had greater contagion (1987 crash, Asian Currency crisis, Russian Debt crisis, LTCM, Y2K, Dot Com bubble, 9/11, etc), didn't. People began to assume the age of crashes was over.
Now I'd be a fool to say that leverage played no part in the crisis. Clearly financials got over-leveraged. Part of the problem is that with so much leverage, some financials (AIG, Lehman, Bear) didn't have enough time to see if their asset bets would play out. But why they got over-levered was a response to contracting yield spreads. Or put another way, ROA was dropping so in order to get the same ROE you needed more leverage. Spreads were contracting (and thus ROA falling) because there was greater confidence in a more stable economic horizon. As ROA fell, too many fell into a trap of buying poorly constructed securities to get a relatively small amount of extra yield. And before you try to say that no one saw ABS CDOs as riskier, consider that the senior-most ABS deals always yielded 20-30bps more than the senior-most commercial loan-backed CDOs. Every one knew that consumer ABS-backed CDOs were more risky!
So ultimately, leveraged investing comes down to picking good assets first, then getting the leverage right. The crisis has been brought on by poor asset decisions more so than too much leverage.