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Risks and Advantages of Trading in a Margin Account

By:Nick Battista

Looking to understand margin? Start here.

  • Margin trading can amplify gains but can also amplify losses in the same way.
  • Margin trading applies to options trading, too, but the leverage is significantly different.
  • A margin call occurs when the equity in a trader's margin account falls below the required level.

Margin trading is a unique form of trading leverage that enables individuals to borrow money from their brokers to purchase more stocks than they can afford with their own funds. While it can potentially be an exciting opportunity to increase profits, it is crucial to understand the associated rules and risks.

Here, we will explore the key concepts and rules of margin trading to help you make informed decisions. 

What is margin trading? 

The money traders borrow from their brokers acts as leverage, enabling traders to amplify their potential gains. However, losses can also be magnified in the same way, making margin trading a higher-risk strategy. 

Margin trading applies to options trading as well, but the leverage is significantly different. Instead of borrowing money from the brokerage firm, the options positions are leveraged to the risk of the position.

For defined risk positions, like spreads of long options, the options will hold the buying power equal to the cost/risk of the trade. For naked short options, the leverage is variable, but generally stays around 4:1 depending on the underlying price, volatility and the risk of the position. Margin debit cannot be used on option positions, but the added leverage of buying power potentially gives options more notional exposure compared to stock on margin.   

Initial margin requirement

One of the fundamental rules in margin trading is the initial margin requirement. Before a broker lends any money, traders must contribute a certain percentage of their own funds. This initial margin acts as a down payment, ensuring that traders have a stake in the investment. The specific percentage required varies depending on the broker and the securities being traded, the price of the stock, volatility or internal risk controls at the firm—all contribute to the initial margin requirement. 

Maintenance margin requirement

Besides the initial margin requirement, traders must also adhere to the maintenance margin requirement. This rule mandates a trader to maintain a minimum amount of equity in their margin account. Equity refers to the value of the securities minus the borrowed funds. If the value of the securities drops and the equity falls below the maintenance margin requirement, a margin call may be triggered.  

Margin call 

A margin call occurs when the equity in a trader's margin account falls below the maintenance margin requirement. When this happens, the broker will request additional funds to restore the account's equity to an acceptable level. Traders have a limited time to meet the margin call by depositing more funds or liquidating some of their positions. Failure to meet a margin call may result in the broker liquidating securities to cover the outstanding debt. 

Risks and benefits of margin trading 

Margin trading offers potential benefits, such as increased buying power and the ability to capitalize on market opportunities. However, it is essential to understand the risks. The primary risk is the potential for losses to exceed the initial investment because of leverage. Market volatility and sudden price fluctuations can lead to significant losses, especially if traders fail to employ proper risk management strategies.   

Risk management strategies 

To mitigate the risks associated with margin trading, it is crucial to implement effective risk management strategies. Here are a few to consider: 

  1. Keep positions sizing in check: Margin accounts allow for added leverage, which means the ability to control more notional value in stock/options than the available cash balance. In this case—its best to not over-leverage the account—keeping some cash on the sidelines and keeping positions small enough to withstand short-term variance. Keep in mind, a margin account with a cash balance of $100,000 can buy $200,000 worth of stock. In this case keeping $50,000 in cash would still have the portfolio leveraged 1:1. 
  2. Set a stop-loss order: A stop-loss order is an instruction to sell a security if its price falls below a specified level. This helps limit potential losses by automatically triggering a sale when the market moves against your position. Stop loss can also, synthetically, be applied to option positions—instead of trading naked options, define the risk by buying out-of-the-money (OTM) long options to create a spread.
  3. Diversify your portfolio: Spreading your investments across different securities and sectors can help reduce the impact of a single stock's poor performance on your overall portfolio. Diversification applies not only to stocks but also to options, diversification of strategy, directional assumption, and risk, can all help reduce risk.
  4. Regularly monitor your positions: Stay informed about market trends and news that may impact your investments. Regularly reviewing your positions enables you to make timely decisions and adjust your strategy if necessary. 
  5. Educate yourself: Continuously educate yourself about margin trading, market dynamics and risk management strategies. Understanding the intricacies of margin trading will help you make informed decisions and navigate the market more effectively. 

Margin trading can be a powerful tool for new and experienced traders, but it comes with significant risks in addition to potential rewards. By understanding the rules and implementing effective risk-management strategies, you can navigate the world of margin trading more confidently. Always remember to assess your risk tolerance and consult with a financial advisor if needed. 

Nick Battista, tastylive director of market intelligence, has a decade of trading experience. He appears Monday-Friday on Options Trading Concepts Live. On Wednesdays, he co-hosts Johnny Trades. @tradernickybat

For live daily programming, market news and commentary, visit tastylive or the YouTube channels tastylive (for options traders), and tastyliveTrending for stocks, futures, forex & macro.

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