An Orderly Unwind of Stock Market Leverage?
An Orderly Unwind of Stock Market Leverage? by Wolf Richter – Wolf Street
That would be a first, but it might be happening. Everything in slow motion, even market declines?
There is nothing like a good shot of leverage to fire up the stock market. How much leverage is out there is actually a mystery, given that there are various forms of stock-market leverage that are not tracked, including leverage at the institutional level and “securities backed loans” offered by brokers to their clients (here’s an example of how these SBLs can blow up).
But one type of stock-market leverage is measured: “margin debt” – the amount individual and institutional investors borrow from their brokers against their portfolios. Margin debt had surged by $22.9 billion in January to a new record of $665.7 billion, the last gasp of the phenomenal Trump rally that ended January 26. But in February, as the sell-off was rattling some nerves, margin debt dropped by $20.7 billion to $645.1 billion.
By March, those worries have settled down, and margin debt ticked up a bit to $645.2 billion, but remained $20.5 billion below January, according to FINRA, which regulates member brokerage firms and exchange markets, and which has taken over margin-debt reporting from the NYSE.
In January, days before the sell-off began, FINRA warned about the levels of margin debt. It was “concerned,” it said, “that many investors may underestimate the risks of trading on margin and misunderstand the operation of, and reason for, margin calls.” Investors might not understand that their broker can liquidates much or all of their portfolio “under unfavorable market conditions,” when prices are crashing. “These liquidations can create substantial losses for investors,” FINRA warned. And when the bounce comes, these investors, with their portfolios cleaned out, cannot participate in it.
This is why leverage such as margin debt is the great accelerator for stocks on the way up as it creates new liquidity that goes into buying stocks. And this is also why margin debt is the great accelerator on the way down, when forced selling kicks in and liquidity just disappears.