One of the reasons why so many people are attracted to trading forex compared to other financial instruments is that with forex, you can usually get much higher leverage than you would with stocks. While many traders have heard of the word "leverage," few know its definition, how leverage works and how it can directly impact their bottom line.

The concept of using other people's money to enter a transaction can also be applied to the forex markets. In this article, we'll explore the benefits of using borrowed capital for trading and examine why employing leverage in your forex trading strategy can be a double-edged sword (For further reading, see: Forex Trading: A Beginner's Guide and How Does Leverage Work in the Forex Market?).

Defining Leverage 

Leverage involves borrowing a certain amount of the money needed to invest in something. In the case of forex, that money is usually borrowed from a broker. Forex trading does offer high leverage in the sense that for an initial margin requirement, a trader can build up — and control — a huge amount of money.

To calculate margin-based leverage, divide the total transaction value by the amount of margin you are required to put up.

Margin-Based Leverage = Total Value of Transaction
Margin Required

For example, if you are required to deposit 1% of the total transaction value as margin and you intend to trade one standard lot of USD/CHF, which is equivalent to US$100,000, the margin required would be US$1,000. Thus, your margin-based leverage will be 100:1 (100,000/1,000). For a margin requirement of just 0.25%, the margin-based leverage will be 400:1, using the same formula.

Margin-Based Leverage Expressed as Ratio Margin Required of Total Transaction Value
400:1 0.25%
200:1 0.50%
100:1 1.00%
50:1 2.00%

However, margin-based leverage does not necessarily affect risk and whether a trader is required to put up 1% or 2% of the transaction value as margin may not influence their profits or losses. This is because the investor can always attribute more than the required margin for any position. This indicates that the real leverage, not margin-based leverage, is the stronger indicator of profit and loss.

To calculate the real leverage you are currently using, simply divide the total face value of your open positions by your trading capital.

Real Leverage = Total Value of Transaction
Total Trading Capital

For example, if you have $10,000 in your account, and you open a $100,000 position (which is equivalent to one standard lot), you will be trading with 10 times leverage on your account (100,000/10,000). If you trade two standard lots, which is worth $200,000 in face value with $10,000 in your account, then your leverage on the account is 20 times (200,000/10,000).

This also means that the margin-based leverage is equal to the maximum real leverage a trader can use. Since most traders do not use their entire accounts as margin for each of their trades, their real leverage tends to differ from their margin-based leverage.

Generally, a trader should not use all of their available margin. A trader should only use leverage when the advantage is clearly on their side.

Once the amount of risk in terms of the number of pips is known, it is possible to determine the potential loss of capital. As a general rule, this loss should never be more than 3% of trading capital. If a position is leveraged to the point that the potential loss could be, say, 30% of trading capital, then the leverage should be reduced by this measure. Traders will have their own level of experience and risk parameters and may choose to deviate from the general guideline of 3% (For further reading, see: Limiting Losses).

Traders may also calculate the level of margin that they should use. Suppose that you have $10,000 in your trading account and you decide to trade 10 mini USD/JPY lots. Each move of one pip in a mini account is worth approximately $1, but when trading 10 minis, each pip move is worth approximately $10. If you are trading 100 minis, then each pip move is worth about $100. Thus, a stop-loss of 30 pips could represent a potential loss of $30 for a single mini lot, $300 for 10 mini lots and $3,000 for 100 mini lots. Therefore, with a $10,000 account and a 3% maximum risk per trade, you should leverage only up to 30 mini lots even though you may have the ability to trade more (To learn more, see Finding Your Margin Investment Sweet Spot).

Leverage in Forex Trading

In the foreign exchange markets, leverage is commonly as high as 100:1. This means that for every $1,000 in your account, you can trade up to $100,000 in value. Many traders believe the reason that forex market makers offer such high leverage is because leverage is a function of risk. They know that if the account is properly managed, the risk will also be very manageable, otherwise they would not offer the leverage. Also, because the spot cash forex markets are so large and liquid, the ability to enter and exit a trade at the desired level is much easier than in other less liquid markets (For further reading, see: Place Forex Orders Properly).

In trading, we monitor the currency movements in pips, which is the smallest change in currency price and depends on the currency pair. These movements are really just fractions of a cent. For example, when a currency pair like the GBP/USD moves 100 pips from 1.9500 to 1.9600, that is just a one cent move of the exchange rate.

This is why currency transactions must be carried out in sizable amounts, allowing these minute price movements to be translated into larger profits when magnified through the use of leverage. When you deal with an amount such as $100,000, small changes in the price of the currency can result in significant profits or losses.

Risk of Excessive Real Leverage in Forex Trading

This is where the double-edged sword comes in, as real leverage has the potential to enlarge your profits or losses by the same magnitude. The greater the amount of leverage on capital you apply, the higher the risk that you will assume. Note that this risk is not necessarily related to margin-based leverage although it can influence if a trader is not careful.

Let's illustrate this point with an example (See Figure 1).

Both Trader A and Trader B have a trading capital of US$10,000, and they trade with a broker that requires a 1% margin deposit. After doing some analysis, both of them agree that USD/JPY is hitting a top and should fall in value. Therefore, both of them short the USD/JPY at 120.

Trader A chooses to apply 50 times real leverage on this trade by shorting US$500,000 worth of USD/JPY (50 x $10,000) based on their $10,000 trading capital. Because USD/JPY stands at 120, one pip of USD/JPY for one standard lot is worth approximately US$8.30, so one pip of USD/JPY for five standard lots is worth approximately US$41.50. If USD/JPY rises to 121, Trader A will lose 100 pips on this trade, which is equivalent to a loss of US$4,150. This single loss will represent a whopping 41.5% of their total trading capital.

Trader B is a more careful trader and decides to apply five times real leverage on this trade by shorting US$50,000 worth of USD/JPY (5 x $10,000) based on their $10,000 trading capital. That $50,000 worth of USD/JPY equals to just one-half of one standard lot. If USD/JPY rises to 121, Trader B will lose 100 pips on this trade, which is equivalent to a loss of $415. This single loss represents 4.15% of their total trading capital.

Figure 1 shows how the trading accounts of these two traders compare after the 100-pip loss:

Trader A Trader B
Trading Capital $10,000 $10,000
Real Leverage Used 50 times 5 times
Total Value of Transaction $500,000 $50,000
In the Case of a 100-Pip Loss -$4,150 -$415
% Loss of Trading Capital 41.5% 4.15%
% of Trading Capital Remaining 58.5% 95.8%
*All figures in U.S. dollars

The Bottom Line

There's no need to be afraid of leverage once you have learned how to manage it. The only time leverage should never be used is if you take hands-off approach to your trades. Otherwise, leverage can be used successfully and profitably with proper management. Like any sharp instrument, leverage must be handled carefully—once you learn to do this, you have no reason to worry.

Smaller amounts of real leverage applied on each trade affords more breathing room by setting a wider but reasonable stop and avoiding a higher loss of capital. A highly leveraged trade can quickly deplete your trading account if it goes against you, as you will rack up greater losses due to bigger lot sizes. Keep in mind that leverage is totally flexible and customizable to each trader's needs.

Want to learn how to invest?

Get a free 10 week email series that will teach you how to start investing.

Delivered twice a week, straight to your inbox.