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Understanding Margin Trading

Almost all stock brokers offer margin trading, which is essentially borrowing money from them to purchase more stocks. Many investors do not understand margin trading or whether or not it is good for them.

Deciding whether or not to borrow on margin is a business decision like any other. When you borrow on margin, you are borrowing money to buy stocks, using the stocks you currently own as collateral. If you think the stocks you will buy will significantly outperform the margin rate you pay, then borrowing on margin may be good for you.

For example, let’s say you have a very large asset base, let’s call it $10 million. You believe the market is incredibly oversold, as it was a couple weeks ago. You want to borrow money to invest in the market. You decide to borrow $2 million, paying 5% interest. You believe that you can make 15-25% on the money you borrow, well above the interest rate you are paying. In this case, borrowing the money on margin looks like it will make a good payoff.

As you can see, the three key factors here are the margin rate you are paying, the amount you can make off of the money you borrow, and your risk tolerance. The above example, however, is a very optimistic one. Most of the time, for people with average or small asset base, margin rates are very high, generally 8.5% or more and can easily be 10% or more. Furthermore, the market returns about 10% a year on average, so most of the time, borrowing on margin mean taking on a lot of risk for potentially very little reward.

What exactly are the margin risks? Well, besides the fact that you are betting more money, so you can lose more money, you also risk a margin call. Let’s say you have $50k and borrow $50k on margin. The market gets pummeled, and your $100k in total investments ($50k yourself plus $50k you borrowed) drop down to $70k. At this point, there’s a very good chance you’ll receive a margin call. The broker will demand that you sell securities (or put up additional funds) so that you reach a certain level. For example, the federal government requires brokers to have at least a 25% maintenence requirement, though most brokers have a higher number.

Let’s say your broker has a 30% maintenence requirement. Since you borrowed 50k on margin, you will need to maintain an overall balance of about $71k or more before receiving a margin call. If you get a margin call, you will need to put up more money from your bank account or start selling securities.

Let’s say, in the $50k +$50k example that you’re somehow forced to sell all of your secuirites after your balance dropped to $50k. Now, all you have is $20k minus what you paid in margin interest. Even though the market only dropped down by about 30%, you ended up losing over 60% of your funds since you leveraged yourself.

As you can see, margin trading involves a lot of risk. It should only be done by expert investors who know what they are doing and can get access to a decent margin rate. For average investors, margin trading is generally a bad idea.

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