COMPLACENCY - Leverage Being Increased
Investors Rediscovering Margin Debt 05-09-13 WSJ
Small investors are borrowing against their portfolios at a rapid clip, reaching levels of debt not seen since the financial crisis. The trend—driven by a combination of rising stock values and rock-bottom interest rates—is sparking a growing debate among market watchers. To some, this trend in so-called margin debt is a sign of investors' increasing confidence in a bull market for stocks that has already lifted the Dow Jones Industrial Average 15.1% in 2013.
But to others it is a warning sign that the Federal Reserve's easy-money policies are creating a bubble mentality among stock investors. As of the end of March, the most recent data available, investors had $379.5 billion of margin debt at New York Stock Exchange member firms, according to the Big Board. That is just shy of the record $381.4 billion in margin debt set in July 2007.
In March, the level of margin debt stood 28% higher than one year earlier, a time frame that saw the Standard & Poor's 500-stock index rise 11.4%.
The fear is that as more investors rely on money borrowed against stocks, any significant fall in stock prices will be magnified if investors are forced to sell securities to raise cash and meet margin requirements.
"Borrowing is cheap," said Randy Frederick, managing director of active trading and derivatives at Charles Schwab Corp.
"The big danger in trading on margin isn't that the market goes down a little, it's that the market goes down a lot," said Mr. Frederick. "It could cause a downturn to accelerate." With margin debt, investors pledge securities—stocks or bonds—to obtain loans from their brokerage firm. The money doesn't have to be used to just buy more investments. The funds can be used in what ever way the account holder wishes. Interest rates can vary significantly for account holders. A valued client may pay less than 1% interest on the loan, while others could pay more than the prime rate, which is now 3.25%.
Jamie Cox, managing partner at Harris Financial Group, a financial-services firm in Richmond, Va., that manages money primarily for retirees, said a client this week used margin debt to finance a $70,000 home-improvement project that included renovating a kitchen, bathroom and a couple of bedrooms. In this case, margin debt was viewed as a more attractive option to pay for the project than was selling stocks in the portfolio to raise cash, Mr. Cox said. One reason is that the interest on margin debt is tax-deductible, he said. Mr. Cox, after consulting with his client, could then selectively sell some securities and let dividend payments pay down the margin loan. "He decided it was a great alternative," Mr. Cox said.
For some market watchers, rising levels of margin debt are a sign that investors are becoming complacent and making decisions based on the idea that stocks can only go up.
"You have to feel really good about the market to be borrowing to buy more shares at these levels," said Bruce McCain, chief investment strategist at Cleveland's Key Private Bank, a subsidiary of KeyCorp . "It's probably a sign of excessively positive sentiment right now." As evidence that the high levels of margin debt are a warning sign, some analysts note that margin debt hit a peak at the onset of the last two bear markets.
Margin debt topped out in March 2000, which turned out to be the top of the dot.com-stock bubble.
The July 2007 margin-debt record preceded the stock market's subsequent peak in October of that year.
Others are less worried. "This is not a warning that the markets are becoming frothy," said Jim McDonald, chief investment strategist at Northern Trust, whose firm manages more than $700 billion. "It makes sense in this environment to lever up and to take advantage of stronger returns."
To some degree, margin debt reflects the movement of the stock market itself, some note. The more that stocks are worth, the more that investors can borrow.
"Coincidence doesn't imply cause and effect," said Schwab's Mr. Frederick. "The fact that two things move together doesn't mean that one is causing the other."
In addition, some note that when the level of margin debt is compared to the value of the stock market, it isn't as close to a record high as the absolute levels of debt.
The total amount of NYSE margin debt as of the end of March was 2.7% of the market capitalization of the Standard & Poor's 500-stock index. At its precrisis peak, investors had borrowed as much as 2.9% of the S&P 500, and at its crisis low, investors were borrowing 2.3% of the S&P 500's market value.
Still, many say that higher levels of margin debt could ultimately magnify any stock-market selloffs, even if they are not on the near-term horizon. "It's the irrational move of the leveraging up that helps [drive] the boom," said Cullen Roche, founder of San Diego-based Orcam Financial Group, a research and consulting firm. Because unwinding that debt could lead to forced selling, "when the air comes out of the bubble, the situation gets exacerbated on the way down."