margin calls

When I looked at my Fidelity account this morning I saw two odd things:  a simplified interface, and a message sent to everyone with a margin account (my wife and my joint account with Fidelity is a margin account, although we don’t trade on margin).  The message was essentially a warning to be on the alert for potential margin calls.

I’ve never seen this before.  A caveat:  until I retired at the end of 2006 all the family money was in the mutual funds I was managing, in whatever vehicle my employer required.  Still, I didn’t see this in 2008-09.

Two conclusions:

–Fidelity is anticipating/seeing volume increases that are testing the limits of its software (probably mostly an issue of private-company-esque aversion to spending on software infrastructure)

–more interesting, aggregate equity in the accounts of its margin customers must be dangerously (for the customers) low.  Margin-driven selloffs are typically ugly–and very often mark a market bottom.  Here’s why:

margin trading

In its simplest form, a market participant establishes a margin portfolio by investing some of his own money and borrowing the rest from his broker.  He pays interest on the margin loan (Fidelity charges 5% – 9%+, depending on the amount) but all of the gains/losses from the stocks go to him.  The client does relinquish some control over the account to the broker.  In particular, the broker has the right to liquidate some/all of the portfolio, and use the proceeds to repay the loan, if the portfolio value minus the loan value falls below specified levels.

Before liquidating, the broker tells the client what is going to happen and gives him a short period of time to put enough new money (securities or cash) into the account to get the equity above the minimum amount.  This is a margin call.

If the client doesn’t meet the call, the broker begins to sell.  The broker has only one aim–not to get the best price for the client but to convert securities to cash as fast as possible.  Of course, potential buyers quickly figure out what’s going on and withdraw their bids.  Carnage ensues.

That’s what Fidelity was saying we’re on the cusp of this morning.

There are some very shrewd and successful margin traders.  Around the world, though, retail margin traders are regarded as the ultimate dumb money.  That’s why seeing forced selling from these portfolios is typically seen as a very positive sign for stocks.

 

 

 

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