Wednesday, 28 March 2018

The Problems with Leverage and the tricks it can play on you


Leverage is the use of debt to increase the earnings of the company. The company borrows $100 million at 7% and puts that money to work, where it earns 12%. This means that it is earning 5% in excess of its capital costs. The result is that $5 million is brought to the bottom line, which increases earnings and return on equity.

The problem with leverage is that it can make the company appear to have some kind of competitive advantage, when it in fact is just using large amounts of debt. Wall Street investment banks are notorious for the use of very large amounts of leverage to generate earnings. In their case they borrow $100 billion at, let us say, 6% and then loan it out at 7%, which means that they are earning 1% on the $100 billion, which equates to $1 billion. If that $1 billion shows up year after year, it creates the appearance of some kind of durable competitive advantage, even if there isn't one.

The problem is that while it appears that the investment bank has consistency in its income stream, the actual source that is sending it the interest payments may not be able to maintain the payments. This happened in the recent subprime-lending crisis that cost the banks hundreds of billions of dollars. They borrowed billions at, say, 6% and loaned it out at 8% to subprime homebuyers, which made them a ton of money. But when the economy started to slip, the subprime home-buyers started to default on their mortgages, which meant they stopped making interest payments. These subprime borrowers did not have a durable source of income, which ultimately meant that the investment banks didn't either.

In assessing the quality and durability of a company's competitive advantageWarren has learned to avoid businesses that use a lot of leverage to help them generate earnings. In the short run they appear to be the goose that lays the golden eggs, but at the end of the day, they are not.

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