Financial Leverage and 5 Rules For Enhanced Returns

Financial leverage is the use of borrowed funds to increase potential returns. In the right hands, leverage can be an absolute wealth multiplier. However, it can also be a loss multiplier for those lacking expertise or investing in risky assets. 

Let’s explore the world of financial leverage in more depth to better understand when it should and shouldn’t be used.

Financial Leverage and Loan-To-Value

With real estate, the leverage one uses to purchase a property is typically expressed as a ratio. It’s the amount of loan one takes divided by the value or sales price of the property. That ratio is called loan-to-value and is often abbreviated as LTV.

So if you purchased a ten million dollar property by putting down 2.5 million dollars and secured a loan for $7.5 million, then your LTV would be 75%

$7.5 million / $10 million = 75% Loan-to-Value

Similarly, if you borrowed $5 million, then LTV would be 50%. If you borrowed $6.5 million, it would be 65%.

The equity you put down belongs to you, while the remaining debt belongs to the bank. Using other people’s money can help you gain a larger property than you could secure. 

Your equity should increase, and your debt to the bank will decrease as you pay down the loan. Also, if you can maximize operations, you can grow net operating income. Doing so increases the value of the property, which increases your equity and shrinks LTV.

The bank may start as the largest investor in the property, but you gain complete control of its operations and its beneficial tax depreciation. As long as you service the debt, the leftover capital you generate is yours to do with as you please.

Financial Leverage For Enhanced Returns in Real Estate

The primary benefit of financial leverage is enhanced earnings. While some real estate tax benefits are also available to those who use leverage, I want to focus on the enhanced returns.

To understand how leverage increases returns, let me illustrate with an example. Pretend you purchased a $10 million apartment complex that, over time, has appreciated to $15 million. 

To see how leverage enhances your return, let’s evaluate three scenarios.

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First, you own the property free and clear it from debt (no leverage) by paying all cash. For the second scenario, you put 50% or $5 million down and financed $5 million for a 50% LTV. In the last scenario, you put $2 million down and funded $8 million for an 80% LTV. The property went from $10 million in value to $15 million in all three scenarios, yielding $5 million in appreciation. 

Let’s see how your returns vary depending on how much leverage you used: 

Scenario #1: $10 million property purchased for all cash without leverage.

     $5 million (appreciation) / $10 million (equity) = 50% return on equity 

Scenario #2: $10 million property purchased at 50% LTV

     $5 million (appreciation) / $5 million (equity) = 100% return on equity

Scenario #3: $10 million property purchased at 80% LTV

     $5 million (appreciation) / $2 million (equity) = 250% return on equity

In all three scenarios, you made money. However, using financial leverage magnified the returns as much as five-fold. Leverage can be an absolute wealth accelerator, so it’s easy to understand why people use it. 

Risk Management and The Rules for Using Financial Leverage

In the wrong hands, using the wrong strategies, leverage can cut the other way. It can also accelerate losses. The above equations work in the opposite direction. Imagine buying an asset that goes down in value. Those losses are magnified if you use financial leverage. 

Does that mean you shouldn’t use leverage?

I would argue no. After all, understanding how to take advantage of financial leverage is one of the most incredible wealth multipliers available to investors. But the key is understanding when and how to use it correctly. To do that, you should realize some financial leverage rules.

#1 Only Use Financial Leverage When Returns Exceed Costs

There is a cost to borrowing money. Not only do you have to pay it back, but you have to pay it back with interest. So, if the expected return on investment doesn’t exceed the leverage cost, it makes no sense to deploy financial leverage. Don’t use leverage if a leveraged asset won’t provide positive cash flow after expenses. 

#2 Avoid Becoming Over-Leveraged

It can be tempting to maximize financial leverage, given that it magnifies returns. However, you don’t want to fall for that trap. 

You can use leverage to your benefit, but you must also leave room for the inevitable ups and downs that come with even the best investments. Survivability in a financial downturn can become a real issue for those who are over-leveraged, as they’ve left little room for error.

#3 Don’t Mix Financial Leverage With Volatility

As drinking and driving don’t mix, neither should financial leverage and volatility. Whether that volatility comes in the form of price fluctuations or the income stream that pays for the debt, you should avoid using leverage where there is volatility. 

As crucial as this rule is, only a few people ignore it. People gravitate like moths to a flame, whether it’s margin loans, futures contracts, options trading, foreign exchange trades, inverse and leveraged ETFs, or many other highly volatile asset classes. Those investments are some of the riskiest because they combine leverage with volatility.

I’m not saying people can’t make money in those investments, but losing money is the expected outcome. More often than not, mixing volatility with leverage is like playing with fire.

Don’t forget this rule and only leverage non-volatile assets. 

Skipping Volatility with Multifamily Real Estate

Politics, weather, economic news, and supply and demand drive market volatility. Sex scandals, supply-chain disruptions, and changing consumer sentiment can all lead to steep declines. It’s the nature of the beast. The market is fickle and goes up and down without much hope that you, or anyone else, can predict what it will do in the short and intermediate terms. 

That doesn’t mean the market isn’t worth the investment, but it does mean that you shouldn’t try to time it or deploy leverage when investing in it. It’s simply too risky. 

Multifamily real estate is different. Population dynamics and not economic ones drive it. It doesn’t fluctuate like a candle in the wind. Instead, it stands firmly in both good and bad economic times. After all, an investment in apartments is an investment in the basic need for shelter. People have always and will always need a roof over their heads regardless of what the economy is doing. 

Countless studies have shown that multifamily real estate’s volatility is low. It approximates the volatility of stable government bonds. It’s been between three and four times less volatile than the stock market for decades. 

Additionally, research done by the National Multifamily Housing Council (NMHC) shows that over thirty years, multifamily real estate has had the lowest volatility (standard deviation) than the other commercial real estate asset classes (industrial, office, retail).

A large body of evidence shows that the lower-volatility nature of multifamily real estate lends itself well to using financial leverage.

#4 Financial Leverage is More Attractive in Inflationary Times

The default setting of our economy is inflation. The consumer price index (CPI) typically runs around 3% annually. Currently, inflation is out of control, hitting a 40-year high. Assuming you’re following the other financial leverage rules, that’s good for those of us who use leverage to grow wealth.

Inflation weakens the value of a dollar, but debt service is typically fixed. So, you get to pay that fixed debt with weaker inflationary dollars in the future. But the opposite is true in deflationary times. 

During deflation, a wide range of assets typically decline in value. In general, this isn’t the best time to deploy financial leverage. With that said, deflation lends itself to investment opportunities. Some say that these are the times when investments are on sale. 

So, if you decide to deploy leverage, follow the other rules and buy something stable, provide ample cash flow after paying all expenses, and don’t over-leverage your position. If you do that, in the long term, you should be able to weather any economic downturn.

#5 Have an Exit Strategy for Cutting Leverage if Necessary

Financial leverage is excellent, but it’s not applicable in every situation. Therefore, it’s essential to have a clearly defined action plan for when you’ll ditch that leverage. Financial leverage is nothing more than a tool. It should be used when it makes sense and abandoned when it doesn’t. 

Please know the difference or invest with someone who does.

Obey The Financial Leverage Rules to Maximize Investment Returns

Financial leverage can be an essential wealth multiplier you can access to achieve your financial goals. However, because it cuts both ways, there is a right way to use it and a wrong way. 

The above rules are important to remember if you want to increase the odds of leverage working in your favor. Multifamily real estate is uniquely well-positioned to profit from financial leverage. 

It’s a low-volatility asset class that can provide instant cash flow over leverage costs. Multiple sources of debt financing are available to the investor, allowing for competitive terms. 

It’s a proven asset class that has held up well in recessions and deflationary times. Multifamily real estate outperformed many asset classes during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Over several decades, multifamily apartments have performed well in both good times and bad. Inflation has historically been generous to apartment investors, and that is certainly the case now. 

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