What Is Buying on Margin?

Buying on margin occurs when an investor buys an asset by borrowing the balance from a bank or broker. Buying on margin refers to the initial payment made to the broker for the asset—for example, 10% down and 90% financed. The investor uses the marginable securities in their broker account as collateral.

The buying power an investor has in their brokerage account reflects the total dollar amount of purchases they can make with any margin capacity. Short sellers of stock use margin to trade shares.

Key Takeaways

  • Buying on margin means you are investing with borrowed money.
  • Buying on margin amplifies both gains and losses.
  • If your account falls below the maintenance margin, your broker can sell some or all of your portfolio to get your account back in balance.
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Buying on Margin

Understanding Buying on Margin

The Federal Reserve Board sets the margins securities. As of 2019, the board requires an investor to fund at least 50% of a security's purchase price with cash. The investor may borrow the remaining 50% from a broker or a dealer.

As with any loan, when an investor buys securities on margin, they must eventually pay back the money borrowed, plus interest, which varies by brokerage firm on a given loan amount. Monthly interest on the principal is charged to an investor's brokerage account.

Essentially, buying on margin implies that an individual is investing with borrowed money. Although there are benefits, the practice is thus risky for the investor with limited funds.

How Buying on Margin Works

To see how buying on margin works, we are going to simplify the process by taking out the monthly interest costs. Although interest does impact returns and losses, it is not as significant as the margin principal itself.

Consider an an investor who purchases 100 shares of Company XYZ stock at $100 per share. The investor funds half the purchase price with their own money and buys the other half on margin, bringing the initial cash outlay to $5,000. One year later, the share price rises to $200. The investor sells their shares for $20,000 and pays back the broker the $5,000 borrowed for the initial purchase.

Ultimately, in this case, the investor triples their money, making $15,000 on a $5,000 investment. If the investor had purchased the same number of shares using their own money, they would only have doubled their investment from $5,000 to $10,000.

Now, consider that instead of doubling after a year, the share price falls by half to $50. The investor sells at a loss and receives $5,000. Since this equals the amount owed to the broker, the investor loses 100% of their investment. If the investor had not used margin for their initial investment, the investor would still have lost money, but they would only have lost 50% of their investment—$2,500 instead of $5,000.

How to Buy on Margin

The broker sets the minimum or initial margin and the maintenance margin that must exist in the account before the investor can begin buying on margin. The amount is based largely on the investor's creditworthiness. A maintenance margin is required of the broker, which is a minimum balance that must be retained in the investor's brokerage account.

Suppose an investor deposits $15,000 and the maintenance margin is 50%, or $7,500. If the investor's equity dips below $7,500, the investor may receive a margin call. At this point, the investor is required by the broker to deposit funds to bring the balance in the account to the required maintenance margin. The investor can depositing cash or sell securities purchased with borrowed money. If the investor does not comply, the broker may sell off the investments held by the investor to restore the maintenance margin.

Who Should Buy on Margin?

Generally speaking, buying on margin is not for beginners. It requires a certain amount of risk tolerance and any trade using margin needs to be closely monitored. Seeing a stock portfolio lose and gain value over time is often stressful enough for people without the added leverage. Furthermore, the high potential for loss during a stock market crash makes buying on margin particularly risky for even the most experienced investors.

However, some types of trading, such as commodity futures trading, are almost always purchased using margin while other securities, such as options contracts, and must be purchased using all cash. For most individual investors primarily focused on stocks and bonds, buying on margin introduces an unnecessary level of risk.