Understanding Leverage Trading

By Laurel Tincher · May 18, 2024 · 11 minute read

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Understanding Leverage Trading

Leverage allows investors to allocate a small amount of capital to get exposure to a much bigger position. Leverage, also called margin, is effectively a way of borrowing cash for increased trading power. A leverage ratio of 20:1 means a $1 investment can buy $20 worth of an asset.

Using leverage, traders can place bigger bets and potentially earn higher returns on their initial capital. However, leveraged trading also increases a trader’s risk of losses; if the asset moves in the wrong direction, the trader not only suffers a loss but must repay the amount borrowed, plus interest and fees.

This is one reason that only experienced investors qualify for leverage accounts, e.g. margin accounts, and leveraged trading opportunities.

Key Points

•   Leverage trading involves using borrowed funds to increase potential investment returns.

•   A leverage ratio of 20:1 means a small investment can control a much larger position.

•   Risks include the potential to lose more than the initial investment.

•   Not all securities are eligible for leverage; rules vary by broker and security type.

•   Leverage is typically reserved for experienced investors due to its high risk.

What Is Leverage Trading?

In both business and finance, the term leverage refers to the use of debt to fuel expansion or purchase securities. In leverage trading, traders can use margin to buy assets like stocks, options, and forex.

Leverage and margin are similar concepts, but they’re different. One way to think of the differences is that a trader can use margin to increase their leverage. Margin is the tool, and leverage is the force behind the tool, which can be used to potentially increase returns (or losses).

A margin account allows you to borrow from the brokerage to purchase securities that are worth more than the cash you have on hand. In this case, the cash or securities already in your account act as collateral.

Which Securities Are Eligible for Margin?

Not all securities can be bought using leverage, however. Industry rules dictate that equities known as penny stocks and Initial Public Offering (IPO) stocks are not marginable. Generally, stocks and exchange-traded funds (ETFs) that are worth more than $3 per share, as well as mutual funds and certain types of bonds are eligible for leverage trades using margin. Check with your broker, as rules can vary by jurisdiction.

Margin can be used to trade options and futures, but this type of leverage trading can be highly risky. Forex options trading, for example, allows traders to place big bets using very small amounts of cash.

While there is no standard amount of margin in the forex market, it is common for traders to post 1% margin, which allows them to trade $100,000 of notional currency for every $1,000 posted — a ratio of 100:1.

Leverage Risks and Rewards

Leverage trading can only be successful if the return on an investment is higher than the cost to borrow money, which you must repay with interest and fees.

Leverage trading can significantly increase potential earnings, but it is also very risky because you can lose more than the entire amount of your investment. For that reason leverage is usually only available to experienced traders.

💡 Quick Tip: Investment fees are assessed in different ways, including trading costs, account management fees, and possibly broker commissions. When you set up an investment account, be sure to get the exact breakdown of your “all-in costs” so you know what you’re paying.

Increase your buying power with a margin loan from SoFi.

Borrow against your current investments at just 11%* and start margin trading.

*For full margin details, see terms.


How Leverage Works in Trading

Leverage trading in a brokerage account consists of a trader borrowing money from the broker, then using that along with their own funds to enter into trades.

The key to understanding how using leverage can help generate higher returns, but also greater losses, is that the funds borrowed are a fixed liability. Suppose a trader starts with $50, and borrows $50 to buy $100 worth of stock. Whether the stock’s value goes up or down from there, the trader is on the hook to give back $50, plus interest, to the broker.

Example of Leverage Trading

Using the above example, suppose the stock appreciates by 10%, and the trader closes out the position. They return the $50 they borrowed, and keep the remaining $60. That equates to a $10 gain on their $50 of capital, and a 20% return — double the return of the underlying stock.

On the flip side, consider what happens if the stock declines in value by 10%. The trader closes out the position and receives $90, but has to give the broker back the $50 they borrowed, plus interest. They are left with $40, a loss of $10, plus any interest or fees, which is a 20% loss or more.

Understanding Leverage Ratio

Leverage is often expressed as a ratio. For example, a leverage ratio of 2:1 is generally the rule for using margin for equity trades. If you have $50, you can buy $100 worth of stock.

In the case of other types of securities, the leverage ratio can be much higher. A leverage ratio of 20 means a $1,000 investment would allow you to open a trading position of $20,000; 50:1 would allow you to take a position of $50,000.

Maximum Leverage

Brokers have limits on how much they’ll lend traders based on the amount of funds the trader has in their account, their own regulations, and government regulations around leverage trading. If you’re considering using leverage, be sure to understand the rules.

•   Stocks. Thanks to the Federal Reserve Board’s Regulation T, plus a FINRA rule governing margin trades in brokerage accounts, the maximum you can borrow is 50% for an equity trade.

•   Forex. The foreign currency market tends to allow greater amounts of leverage. In some cases, you can place bets as high as 100:1 in the U.S.

•   Commodities. Commodities rules around maximum leverage, and leverage ratios can fluctuate based on the underlying.

Types of Leverage Trading

There are a few different types of leverage trading, each with similarities and differences.

Trading on Margin

Margin is money that a trader borrows from their broker to purchase securities. They use the other securities in their account as collateral for the loan. If their leveraged trade goes down in value, a trader will need to sell other securities to cover the loss.

Many brokers charge interest on margin loans. So in order for a trader to earn a profit, the security has to increase in value enough to cover the interest.

Leveraged ETFs

Some ETFs use leverage to try and increase potential gains based on the index they track. For example, there is an ETF that specifically aims to return 3x the returns that the regular S&P 500 index would get.

It’s important to note that most funds reset on a daily basis. The leveraged ETF aims to match the single day performance of the underlying index. So over the long term even if an index increases in value, a leveraged ETF might decrease in value.

Derivatives

Traders can also use leverage trading with derivatives and options contracts. Buying a single options contract lets a trader control many shares of the underlying security — generally 100 shares — for far less than the value of those 100 shares. As the underlying security increases or decreases in value, the value of the options contract changes.

Options are derivatives contracts that give buyers the right, but not the obligation, to buy (in the case of a call) or sell (in the case of a put) an asset at a specified price within a certain period of time. Traders can choose to sell call options on a stock if they think it is going to decrease in value.

Options trading is one of the riskiest types of leverage trading. A trader could potentially lose an unlimited amount of money if they sell a call option and the underlying stock price skyrockets in value.

If the option seller exercises the trade, the trader will have to purchase the associated amount of the underlying security to sell to the option seller. If the security has gone up a significant amount this could cost millions of dollars or more.

Recommended: Options Trading 101

Leverage Trading Terms to Know

There are several key terms to know in order to fully understand leverage trading.

Account balance: The total amount of funds in a trader’s account that are not currently in trades.

Buying power: This is the total amount a trader has available to enter into leverage trades, including both their own capital and the amount they can borrow.

Coverage: The ratio of the amount of funds currently in leveraged trades in one’s account to the net balance in their account.

Margin Requirement: This is the amount of funds a broker requires a trader to have in their margin account when entering into leverage trades. If a trader incurs losses, those funds will be used to cover them. Traders can also use securities they hold in their account to cover losses. Margin requirement is often a percentage. For example, at a leverage amount of 100:1, the margin requirement is 1%.

Margin call: If a trader’s account balance falls below the margin requirement, the broker will issue a margin call. This is a warning telling the trader they have to either add more funds to their account or close out some of their positions to meet the minimum margin requirement. The broker does this to make sure the trader has sufficient funds in their account to cover potential losses.

Used margin: When an investor enters into trades, some of their account balance is held by the broker as collateral in case it needs to be used to cover losses. That amount will only be available for the trader to use after they close out some of their positions.

Usable margin: This is the money in one’s account that is currently available to put into new trades.

Open position: When a trader is currently holding an asset they are in an open position. For instance, if a trader owns 100 shares of XYZ stock, they have an open position on the stock until they sell it.

Close position: The total value of an investment at the time the trader closes it out.

Stop-loss: Traders can set a price at which their asset will automatically be sold in order to prevent further losses if its value is decreasing. This is very useful if a trader wants to hold positions overnight or if a stock is very volatile.

Pros and Cons of Leveraged Trading

On the surface, leverage can sound like a powerful tool for investors — which it can be. But it’s a tool that can cut both ways: Leverage can add to buying power and potentially increase returns, but it can also magnify losses, and put an investor in the hole.

Pros of Leverage

Cons of Leverage

Increases buying power Leverage funds must be repaid, with interest
Potential to earn higher returns Potential to lose more than your initial investment
Relatively easy to use, if you qualify Investors must meet specific criteria in order to use leverage or open a margin account

Pros

Using leverage can increase your trading power, sometimes to a large degree. It’s important to know the rules, as leverage ratios vary according to the securities you’re trading, the jurisdiction you’re in, and sometimes your broker’s discretion.

If you meet the criteria for using leverage or opening a margin account to trade, it’s relatively easy to access the funds and open bigger positions. Sometimes, placing that bigger bet can pay off with a much higher return than you would have gotten if you invested just the capital you had on hand.

Cons

Just as using leverage can amplify gains, it can amplify losses — in some cases to the point where you lose your initial investment, you must repay the money you borrowed, and you may owe fees and interest on top of that.

For that reason, many brokers require investors to meet certain criteria before they can place leveraged trades.

Tips for Managing the Risks of Leveraged Trading

Experience and skill can help you manage the risk factors inherent in leveraged trades, and a couple of basic protective strategies may help.

Hedge Your Bets

It might be possible to hedge against potential losses by taking an offsetting position to the leverage trade.

Limit Potential Loss of Capital

One rule of thumb suggests that traders limit their loss of capital to no more than 3% of the actual cash portion of the trade. While it’s difficult to know the exact risk level.

Decide Whether Leverage Trading Is Right for You

Although there is potential for significant earnings using leverage trading, there is no guarantee of any earnings, and there is also potential for significant loss. For this reason leverage trading is often said to be best left to experienced traders.

If an investor wants to try leverage trading it’s important for them to assess their financial situation, figure out how much they’re willing to risk, and conduct detailed analysis of the securities they are looking to trade.

Setting up a stop-loss order may help decrease the risk of losses, and traders can also set up a take-profit order to automatically take profits on a position when it reaches a certain amount.

The Takeaway

Leveraged trading is a popular strategy for investors looking to increase their potential profits. By using borrowed funds it’s possible to take much bigger positions, and possibly see bigger wins. But using leverage is very risky, and you can lose more than you have (because the money you borrow has to be repaid in full, plus interest).

If you’re an experienced trader and have the risk tolerance to try out trading on margin, consider enabling a SoFi margin account. With a SoFi margin account, experienced investors can take advantage of more investment opportunities, and potentially increase returns. That said, margin trading is a high-risk endeavor, and using margin loans can amplify losses as well as gains.

Get one of the most competitive margin loan rates with SoFi, 11%*

FAQ

What leverage is good for $100?

If you only wanted to invest a small amount of capital, say $100, you would first need to check the policies at your brokerage about the use of lower amounts. If approved, you might want to use a lower amount of leverage, e.g. 10:1. That means for every $1 of cash you put down, you can get $10 in leverage. So a $100 leverage trade would be worth $1,000.

How much leverage is too high?

Knowing how much you can afford to lose is an important calculation when making leveraged trades. In addition, the amount of leverage available to you will also be restricted by existing regulations or brokerage rules. And remember, if a trade goes south, your broker can liquidate existing assets to cover your losses and any margin.


Photo credit: iStock/ljubaphoto

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