Back when I was in banking, there was a term that got batted around quite a bit called speed-boating. The expression was derived from the way a fast-traveling boat can, for a while, outrun its own wake . As long as a certain speed is maintained, the boat will travel smoothly. However, if the boat suddenly slows down it can be swamped when its wake catches up with it.
Here's how the analogy worked in banking. When you are in the business of lending money, both regulators and investors like to keep track of how well you are doing at getting people to pay their loans back. To do this, they would look at the charge-off rate. At the risk of oversimplifying, this rate was basically the number of loans that went bad divided by the total number of accounts that were open during the period in question.
Obviously, if you booked an account and it went bad, this would add one to both the numerator and the denominator which would push your rate closer to 100%. So you would think that it would always be in the banker's best interest to avoid loans that are going to go bad.
The flaw, or at least the loophole, in this assumption is the fact that the ones are not added at the same time. Even in the extreme cases where the customers never make a payment, the loan is not considered bad for a certain interval, generally 90 days or more. If the customers make a few small payments, this could stretch out for six months or year.
Let's say I book an account that goes delinquent after one year. That was a bad deal for the bank – – it lost money due to that decision – – but for one year, having that account actually lowered the bank's charge-off rate. Eventually, of course, this will catch up with the bank, but the reckoning can be delayed if the bank continues to book these bad accounts at an increasing rate.
As with many of our posts, the moral of the story is that numbers don't always mean what you think they mean. You will often see someone pull out a statistic to settle an argument -- "How can you say the business model is unstable? See how long their charge-off rate is?" -- but without understanding the number and knowing its context, you can't really say anything meaningful with it.
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