What You Need to Know About Margin Balance

By Rebecca Lake · November 11, 2023 · 7 minute read

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What You Need to Know About Margin Balance

Margin trading simply means borrowing money from a brokerage to purchase securities, and margin balance is the amount of money an investor owes to the brokerage. Trading stocks and other securities on margin allows investors to expand their purchasing power, though the availability of margin is predicated on the holdings an investor has in the first place.

Accordingly, when an investor uses the brokerage’s funds to buy securities, this results in a margin debit balance. Similar to a credit card or traditional loan, a margin balance is a line of credit that the borrower must repay with interest. Having a margin balance outstanding is common in margin trading, but investors should understand the implications of owing money to a brokerage — and what can happen if you’re subject to a margin call.

What Is Margin Balance?

Again, margin balance is the amount of money an investor owes to its brokerage at any given time in a margin trading account. When an investor opens a margin account, they must make an initial deposit, called the “minimum margin.” The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) requires a minimum margin of at least $2,000, though some brokerages may require a higher minimum.

After making that deposit to their brokerage account, investors can then trade using an initial margin. Federal Reserve Board Regulation T allows investors to borrow up to 50% of the purchase price of securities when trading on margin. So, for example, a margin trader could purchase $10,000 worth of stocks using their own funds and another $10,000 using the brokerage’s funds. The $10,000 borrowed from the brokerage represents the investor’s margin balance.

You can trade a variety of securities in a margin account, including stocks, and derivatives such as options or futures.

The rules for margin balance forex are slightly different. In forex trading, margin represents collateral or security that an investor must deposit with the brokerage to start trading. The brokerage typically sets this as a percentage of the trading order.

💡 Quick Tip: How to manage potential risk factors in a self-directed investment account? Doing your research and employing strategies like dollar-cost averaging and diversification may help mitigate financial risk when trading stocks.

How Margin Balance Works

Margin balance allows investors to borrow money, then repay it to the brokerage with interest. A negative margin balance or margin debit balance represents the amount subject to interest charges. This amount is always either a negative number or $0, depending on how much an investor has outstanding.

Unlike other types of loans, margin balance loans do not have a set repayment schedule. Investors can make payments toward the principal and interest through their brokerage account at a pace convenient for them. They can also deposit cash into their margin accounts or sell off margin securities to reduce their margin balance.

Margin Calls

While there is some flexibility associated with paying off a negative margin balance, investors should understand their interest charges as well as the possibility of being subject to a margin call. Margin calls essentially act as a stopgap risk management tool for the brokerage.

In addition to the minimum margin and the initial margin requirements, investors must observe maintenance margin guidelines. This represents a minimum amount of equity the investor must keep in their account. Under FINRA rules, the maintenance requirement is at least 25% equity, based on the value of the margin account. Some brokerages may raise this to 30%, 40% or more.

Using the previous example, assume that an investor deposits $10,000 of their own money and borrowers $10,000 from their brokerage to invest in marginable securities. Now, say that the investment doesn’t go as planned and the stock’s value drops. That initial $20,000 investment is now worth $10,000. When the margin debit balance of $10,000 is subtracted, that results in a net balance of $0, meaning the trader has zero equity and does not meet the maintenance margin requirements.

At this point, the brokerage may initiate a margin call which would require the investor to deposit more cash into their account in order to continue trading. If an investor can not add more cash to cover the maintenance margin requirement, the brokerage may sell off securities from the account to recoup the negative margin balance.

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Negative Margin Balance

A negative margin balance in a margin account represents what’s owed to the brokerage. Depending on the brokerage, the margin debit balance may be listed inside parentheses or have a negative symbol in front of it.

Margin Balance Example

For example, an investor who has a negative margin balance of $12,225 may see one of the following when logging into their account:

•   Margin balance: -$12,225

•   Margin balance: ($12,225)

They both mean the same thing: that investor owes the brokerage $12,225 for trading on margin.

If a trader’s margin balance shows as a positive amount, that means they have a margin credit balance rather than a margin debit balance. A credit balance can occur if an investor sells off shares to clear their negative margin balance but the settlement amount is more than what they owe to the brokerage.

How Margin Balance Is Calculated

Brokerages can lend investors money on margin but in exchange for this convenience, they can charge those investors interest, or margin rates. The level of those rates depends on the brokerage and the type of securities that you’re trading. Many brokerages use a benchmark rate, known as a broker call rate or call money rate, then tier that rate across different margin account balances.

Brokerages can use this as a baseline rate, then add or deduct percentage points. Generally, the larger the margin account balance, the deeper the margin rate discount. Meanwhile, traders who maintain lower margin balances tend to pay higher interest rates. So, an investor with less than $25,000 in their account might pay 7%-8% for margin rates while an investor with over $1 million in their account might pay 4%-5% instead.

Brokerages typically calculate margin interest on a daily basis and charge it to an investor’s account monthly. The interest charges on a margin account can directly affect the net return realized from an investment. Higher margin rates can increase the rate of return needed to break-even on an investment or realize a profit on a stock.

Managing Your Margin Balance

Managing a margin account and margin balances begins with understanding the risks involved, including the possibility of a margin call. The value of your securities can impact your margin balance, and increased volatility could cause the value of margin securities to drop, which could put you below the maintenance margin requirements. You’d then need to deposit more money to your account to continue trading.

Maintaining a cushion of funds inside your margin account could help avoid margin calls. Alternatively, you may keep a reserve of funds elsewhere that you could transfer to your margin account if increased volatility threatens to diminish the value of margin securities in your portfolio.

It’s also important to consider how much money you’re comfortable owing to your brokerage at any given time. Setting a cap on the maximum margin can help you avoid overextending yourself. You can also keep margin balances under control by scheduling regular cash deposits or routinely selling securities to reduce what’s owed. One strategy is to pay enough to cover the interest each month to keep your balance from ballooning.

💡 Quick Tip: Are self-directed brokerage accounts cost efficient? They can be, because they offer the convenience of being able to buy stocks online without using a traditional full-service broker (and the typical broker fees).

The Takeaway

A margin balance refers to the balance in an investor’s margin account, which involves borrowing money from a brokerage with which to make trades. That can help investors or traders increase their potential returns, if used wisely.

When you open a brokerage account, you can choose either a cash account or a margin account that allows you to engage in margin trading. Margin trading is a more advanced investment strategy that requires some know-how of the markets and a willingness to accept higher levels of risk.

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Photo credit: iStock/AndreyPopov

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