One of the most seductive narratives about the recent financial crisis is that it was caused by dizzying increases in the amount of leverage on the balance sheets of Wall Street firms, leaving the financial system virtually no margin for error. Leverage, we’ve been told repeatedly, went from about 12-to-1 in 2004 to 33-to-1 in 2008. (Leverage is the ratio of debt or assets to equity; at 33-to-1 leverage, a mere 3 percent drop in the value of a firm’s assets can wipe out its equity.) The reason for the increase, so the story goes, was an underappreciated change, in April 2004, to an obscure Securities and Exchange Commission rule, which let Wall Street off its short leash and allowed unprecedented risk-taking. If not for that, according to the popular press and many accomplished scholars, the crisis might not have happened. The acceptance of this thesis has colored not only how we think about what happened but also the new laws that were designed to prevent the next crisis. The problem is, it’s flat wrong. And because we have misunderstood the facts, we may now be trying to cure the wrong disease.
The spread and evolution of the idea that the financial crisis was caused by a giant increase in leverage, enabled by the SEC, bears a passing resemblance to the old-fashioned, elementary-school game of telephone. While the change to the SEC’s so-called net-capital rule in 2004 was plenty esoteric, in the main, it did not allow big securities firms to take on more leverage. The SEC did two things in 2004: First, it assumed the added responsibility of regulating Wall Street’s larger holding companies—as opposed to just the broker-dealer subsidiaries within them. That’s where more and more funky and risky assets, such as derivatives and mortgages, had been housed over the years. Second, the SEC required the holding companies to report their capital adequacy in a way that was consistent with international standards, and to discount their assets for market, credit, and operational risks. Clearly, the SEC did a poor job of monitoring Wall Street once it obtained this increased regulatory authority. But the rule change increased rather than decreased the SEC’s oversight of the financial sector, and did not suddenly permit a dramatic increase in leverage.