Margin Trading Guide

Margin trading is when investors borrow money to buy stock. It’s a risky trading strategy that requires you to deposit cash in a brokerage account as collateral for a loan, and pay interest on the borrowed funds.

What Is Margin Trading?

Margin trading—also known as buying on margin—allows you to use leverage to boost your purchasing power and make larger investments than you could with your own resources. But when you buy stock with borrowed money, you run the risk of racking up higher losses.

When you open a new brokerage account, you may be offered the opportunity to choose a margin account. This type of brokerage account lets you deposit cash and then borrow a larger amount of money to buy investments.

Margin trading is a type of secured lending. When you take out a loan from your broker to buy on margin, the loan is secured with the investments you buy—similarly to how you secure a home equity line of credit (HELOC) with the home itself.

Regulations limit investors to borrowing up to 50% of an investment’s purchase price. Brokerages may have other limitations on how much you can borrow for margin trading.

Let’s say you open a margin account and deposit $5,000 in cash, for example. Your broker would allow you to buy $10,000 worth of stock in the account, and they would charge you an annual interest rate on the margin loan.

Interest on margin trading is typically added to the margin balance monthly. When you sell your stock, proceeds first pay down the margin loan and what’s left goes to the account owner.

How Does Margin Trading Work?

Margin trading is strictly regulated by the Federal Reserve, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). While brokers may have their own rules, here are the common regulations that govern all margin trading:

  • Minimum Margin is the minimum amount you must deposit in order to buy securities on margin. FINRA requires individuals deposit at least $2,000 or 100% of the purchase price of margin securities, whichever is less. Your broker may require a larger minimum margin deposit.
  • Initial Margin is the percentage of the initial purchase price covered with your own cash when buying securities on margin. The Federal Reserve’s Regulation T allows investors to borrow up to 50% of the initial purchase price of securities, although some brokers require a higher initial margin.
  • Maintenance Margin is the percentage of your own funds that you must maintain in your margin account when you own securities on margin. The minimum maintenance requirement is 25%, but it can be as high as 40%, depending on the broker. This rule ensures that investors don’t get too far in debt and maintain skin in the game.

The biggest risk of margin trading is a decline in the value of the securities you’ve bought on margin. Since the securities collateralize your loan, any price declines reduce your equity and potentially trigger a margin call.

A margin call is when the equity in a margin account is too low to meet the maintenance margin requirement. When this happens, the broker requires the account holder to deposit enough money to meet the maintenance margin, which may cause a scramble for cash.

To illustrate how these rules work, let’s say you open a margin account and deposit $2,000, meeting the minimum margin requirement. Under the initial margin rules, you could turn around and buy $4,000 worth of stock in this margin account.

If your $4,000 stock investment dropped in value to $3,000 for any reason, a broker with a 40% maintenance margin requirement would make a margin call and require you to deposit an extra $800 in cash in your account.

Advantages of Margin Trading

  • Leverage. The main advantage of margin trading is greater purchasing power. With a cash account, you can only buy securities if you have enough money to pay the entire purchase price. When you buy on margin, you can own more shares than if you were limited to using your own funds.
  • Magnifies profits. Margin trading with leverage can magnify your potential profits, and it can provide more scope for buying on margin. That’s because when securities go up in value, not only are the securities you own worth more, but also their higher value as collateral provide you with more leverage for margin trading.
  • Flexibility. Unlike other types of loans, margin accounts don’t have fixed repayment schedules. You only have to repay the loan when the stock is sold, so long as you meet the broker’s maintenance margin requirements.

Risks of Margin Trading

  • Interest. Margin trading isn’t free, and you must pay interest on the money you borrow from your broker. The interest rate varies by broker, and depends on both the amount you borrow and on market conditions. Margin interest rates range from 4.75% to 12%. You owe interest no matter how well or poorly your investments are performing.
  • Margin calls. If the value of the securities owned in a margin account sinks too low and your account equity falls below the minimum maintenance requirement, you’ll face a margin call. Your broker will require you to deposit extra money to meet the maintenance requirement.
  • Forced liquidation. If your broker issues a margin call and you don’t deposit enough cash by the deadline, the broker has the right to liquidate the securities that were purchased on margin. This may happen without notification, and even if it causes you to incur big losses.
  • Magnifies losses. This is the flip side of the magnified profits noted above. If the value of securities bought on margin declines rapidly, you not only lose your equity investment but you also owe money to the broker for your loan

Here’s an illustration of how margin trading can magnify your losses.

Let’s say you buy $10,000 in stock in a margin account, half with borrowed money. If the value of the stock falls by 20% to $8,000, your account equity falls to $3,000 (remember, all the losses come out of your equity portion). In this case, you’ve lost 40% of your cash investment.

If you had purchased $5,000 worth of stock in cash—no margin involved—and the stock suffered the same decline, you’d only lose $1,000 or 20%. In our example, buying on margin could double your losses.

Is Margin Trading Right for You?

Only experienced investors who are comfortable with the risks should consider margin trading. If you’re a novice investor, it’s not the best strategy because it’s a high-risk gamble that can result in heavy losses. Newer investors are likely better off using cash accounts to invest and learn about the market to start.

If you’re thinking about margin trading anyway, you need to make sure you have enough cash on hand to cover any potential losses if your investments fall in value. Otherwise, your investments could be liquidated, and you could lose a significant amount of money.

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