In the current craze that encompasses everything from sneakers and NFTs to stocks, where valuations don’t matter because of widespread certainty that valuations will be even greater in a few days, and where folks are chasing lottery-type returns, supported by the Fed’s interest rate repression and $3 trillion in asset purchases, and by the government’s trillions of dollars of handouts and bailouts – well, in this perfect world, there is a fly in the ointment: Vast amounts of leverage, including stock market leverage.
Margin debt – the amount that individuals and institutions borrow against their stock holdings as tracked by FINRA at its member brokerage firms – is just one indication of stock market leverage. But FINRA reports it monthly. Other types of stock market leverage are not reported at all, or are disclosed only piecemeal in SEC filings by brokers and banks that lend to their clients against their portfolios, such as Securities-Based Loans (SBLs). No one knows how much total stock market leverage there is. But margin debt shows the trend.
In February, margin debt jumped by another $15 billion to $813 billion, according to FINRA. Over the past four months, margin debt has soared by $154 billion, a historic surge to historic highs. Compared to February last year, margin debt has skyrocketed by $269 billion, or by nearly 50%, for another WTF sign that the zoo has gone nuts:
And it’s risky leverage for the borrower. It seems like risk-free leverage when stocks go up, but when your stocks do the unheard-of and tank below a certain level, your broker will ask you to put more cash into your account or sell stocks into the tanking market, whereby you then join the legions of forced sellers.
In the past, a big surge in margin balances tended to precede history-making stock market declines:
Leverage is the great accelerator of stock prices, on the way up, and on the way down. Purchasing stocks with borrowed money creates buying pressure, and prices rise, and rising prices increase the margin balances a portfolio can support, and this encourages more stock-buying on margin.
On the other hand, selling stocks to deal with margin calls adds more selling pressure to an already declining market. The more prices fall, the more selling pressure there is from frazzled forced sellers trying to deal with margin requirements.
When market correct, this is going to be very ugly.
H/t Naked Capitalism.