Leverage on the buy side

BIS Working Papers No 517
October 2015

This paper investigates the microeconomic determinants of leverage decisions by asset managers. Investment funds (the "buy side") have significantly increased their share of global capital flows in recent years. Unconventional monetary policies in advanced economies have squeezed returns while reducing borrowing costs, which in principle creates an incentive for asset managers to use more leverage. We start by studying the recent behaviour of fund leverage in different asset categories at an aggregate level. Leverage appears to have increased significantly in funds focused on the fixed income markets of emerging economies. Then we analyse the microeconomic factors that shape the leverage decision. In line with theory, we find that leverage rises with expected returns, and falls with market risk and borrowing costs. Transaction costs are also mentioned in the literature as another factor that should inhibit leverage. Lacking the requisite data, we introduce as proxies changes in capital controls and macroprudential policies, because they tend to affect expected returns in comparable ways. We find that tighter capital controls on inflows increase leverage rather than decrease it, but that macroprudential measures have no discernible effect. Finally, we discuss these results and their policy implications.

JEL classification: F65, G11, G15, G23

Keywords: leverage, hedge funds/mutual funds, portfolio management, capital structure, capital controls, macroprudential measures