In many ways, the recent financial crisis was (and is) really about seesaws. A seesaw is a lever that lets you do a lot with a little. Using a seesaw, a person weighing 100 pounds can lift someone at the other end who is much larger.
As purchasers of mortgages from financial institutions, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac had rules about the size of down payments for home loans. Lowered to 3% in 1998, new down payment rules meant that consumers needed a lot less money to get a mortgage. In 2001, the rules again shifted when buyers could use other people’s money and loans for a down payment. Leverage? Yes. It became possible to spend a lot on a home with very little money. According to 2002 Congressional testimony from the CEO of Fannie Mae, financing for low down payment loans (5% or less) grew from $109 million in 1993 to $17 billion in 2002. The number of Fannie and Freddie loans requiring less than a 5% down payment soared to 608,581 in 2007 from 75,694 in 1998. In a paper on the financial crisis, George Mason economist Russell Roberts details the leverage that people enjoyed.
Investment bankers also had their own seesaw. When businesses can borrow at a low interest rate and then earn a higher return on that money, their profits multiply. Between 2003 and 2007, investment banking firms started to increase their leverage ratio from 21x to 30x. The leverage ratio compares money borrowed to a firm’s total assets. The change was the result of more lenient borrowing parameters from the SEC during 2004. Interest rates trending downward since 2000 then incentivized further borrowing. Leverage? Yes! Investment banking firms could use a little to borrow and then invest a lot. A paper from University of Maryland associate law professor Robert J. Rhee describes the leverage employed by the major investment banking firms.
Pondering Greece, I realized that they too had their own seesaw. With debt totaling 113% of G.D.P., they too were spending a lot when they had a little.
The Economic Lesson
Hoping to use other people’s money to grow their own assets, in a market economy, individuals, business firms, and governments borrow money. Then, when you have a sufficient return on the investment, you can pay it back. Problems only develop when leverage works in reverse. If the returns do not materialize, then you owe more than you can pay back.