Mark to Market Definition and Uses in Account & Investing

By Rebecca Lake · November 22, 2023 · 3 minute read

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Mark to Market Definition and Uses in Account & Investing

The term “mark to market” refers to an accounting method used to measure the value of assets based on current market conditions. Mark to market accounting seeks to determine the real value of assets based on what they could be sold for right now.

That can be useful in a business setting when a company is trying to gauge its financial health or get a valuation estimate ahead of a merger or acquisition. Aside from accounting, mark to market also has applications in investing when trading stocks, futures contracts, and mutual funds. For traders and investors, it can be important to understand how this concept works.

Key Points

•   Mark to market is an accounting method used to determine the current value of assets based on market conditions.

•   It is used in business to assess financial health and valuation, as well as in investing for trading stocks, futures contracts, and mutual funds.

•   Mark to market accounting adjusts asset values based on current market conditions to estimate their potential sale value.

•   Pros of mark to market accounting include accurate valuations for asset liquidation, value investing, and establishing collateral value for loans.

•   Cons include potential inaccuracies, volatility skewing valuations, and the risk of devaluing assets in an economic downturn.

What Is Mark to Market?

Mark to market is, in simple terms, an accounting method that’s used to calculate the current or real value of a company’s assets, as noted. Mark to market can tell you what an asset is worth based on its fair market value.

Mark to market accounting is meant to create an accurate estimate of a company’s financial status and value year over year. This accounting method can tell you whether a company’s assets have increased or declined in value. When liabilities are factored in, mark to market can give you an idea of a company’s net worth.


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How Mark to Market Accounting Works

Mark to market accounting works by adjusting the value of assets based on current market conditions. The idea is to determine how much an asset — whether it be a piece of equipment or an investment — could be worth if it were to be sold immediately.

If a company were in a cash crunch, for example, and wanted to sell off some of its assets, mark to market accounting could give an idea of how much capital it might be able to raise. The company would try to determine as accurately as possible what its marketable assets are worth.

In stock trading, mark to market value is determined for securities by looking at volatility and market performance. Specifically, you’re looking at a security’s current trading price then making adjustments to value based on the trading price at the end of the trading day.

There are other ways mark to market can be used beyond valuing company assets or securities. In insurance, for example, the mark to market method is used to calculate the replacement value of personal property. Calculating net worth, an important personal finance ratio, is also a simple form of mark to market accounting.

Mark-to-Market Accounting: Pros and Cons

Mark to market accounting can be useful when evaluating how much a company’s assets are worth or determining value when trading securities. But it’s not an entirely foolproof accounting method.

Mark to Market Pros Mark to Market Cons

•   Can help establish accurate valuations when companies need to liquidate assets

•   Useful for value investors when making investment decisions

•   May make it easier for lenders to establish the value of collateral when extending loans

•   Valuations are not always 100% accurate since they’re based on current market conditions

•   Increased volatility may skew valuations of company assets

•   Companies may devalue their assets in an economic downturn, which can result in losses

Pros of Mark to Market Accounting

There are a few advantages of mark to market accounting:

•   It can help generate an accurate valuation of company assets. This may be important if a company needs to liquidate assets or it’s attempting to secure financing. Lenders can use the mark to market value of assets to determine whether a company has sufficient collateral to secure a loan.

•   It can help mitigate risk. If a value investor is looking for new companies to invest in, for example, having an accurate valuation is critical for avoiding value traps. Investors who rely on a fundamental approach can also use mark to market value when examining key financial ratios, such as price to earnings (P/E) or return on equity (ROE).

•   It may make it easier for lenders to establish the value of collateral when extending loans. Mark to market may provide more accurate guidance in terms of collateral value.

Cons of Mark to Market Accounting

There are also some potential disadvantages of using mark to market accounting:

•   It may not be 100% accurate. Fair market value is determined based on what you expect someone to pay for an asset that you have to sell. That doesn’t necessarily guarantee you would get that amount if you were to sell the asset.

•   It can be problematic during periods of increased economic volatility. It may be more difficult to estimate the value of a company’s assets or net worth when the market is experiencing uncertainty or overall momentum is trending toward an economic downturn.

•   Companies may inadvertently devalue their assets in a downturn. If the market’s perception of a company, industry, or sector turns negative, it could spur a sell-off of assets. Companies may end up devaluing their assets if they’re liquidating in a panic. This can have a boomerang effect and drive further economic decline, as it did in the 1930s when banks marked down assets following the 1929 stock market crash.

Mark to Market in Investing

In investing, mark to market is used to measure the current value of securities, portfolios or trading accounts. This is most often used in instances where investors are trading futures or other securities in margin accounts.

Futures are derivative financial contracts, in which there’s an agreement to buy or sell a particular security at a specific price on a future date. Margin trading involves borrowing money from a brokerage in order to increase purchasing power.

Understanding mark to market is important for meeting margin requirements to continue trading. Investors typically have to deposit cash or have marginable securities of $2,000 or 50% of the securities purchased. The maintenance margin reflects the amount that must be in the margin account at all times to avoid a margin call.

In simple terms, margin calls are requests for more money. FINRA rules require the maintenance margin to be at least 25% of the total value of margin securities. If an investor is subject to a margin call, they’ll have to sell assets or deposit more money to reach their maintenance margin and continue trading.

In futures trading, mark to market is used to price contracts at the end of the trading day. Adjustments are made to reflect the day’s profits or losses, based on the closing price at settlement. These adjustments affect the cash balance showing in a futures account, which in turn may affect an investor’s ability to meet margin maintenance requirements.


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Mark to Market Example

Futures markets follow an official daily settlement price that’s established by the exchange. In a futures contract transaction you have a long trader and a short trader. The amount of value gained or lost in the futures contract at the end of the day is reflected in the values of the accounts belonging to the short and long trader.

So, assume a farmer takes a short position in 10 soybean futures contracts to hedge against the possibility of falling commodities prices. Each contract represents 5,000 bushels of soybeans and is priced at $5 each. The farmer’s account balance is $250,000. This account balance will change daily as the mark to market value is recalculated. Here’s what that might look like over a five-day period.

Day

Futures Price Change in Value Gain/Loss Cumulative Gain/Loss Account Balance
1 $5 $250,00
2 $5.05 +0.05 -2,500 -2,500 $247,500
3 $5.03 -0.02 +1,000 -1,500 $248,500
4 $4.97 -0.06 +3,000 +1,500 $251,500
5 $4.90 -0.07 +3,500 +5,000 $255,000

Since the farmer took a short position, a decline in the value of the futures contract results in a positive gain for their account value. This daily pattern of mark to market will continue until the futures contract expires.

Conversely, the trader who holds a long position in the same contract will see their account balance move in the opposite direction as each new gain or loss is posted.

Mark to Market in Recent History

Mark to market accounting can become problematic if an asset’s market value and true value are out of sync. For example, during the financial crisis of 2008-09, mortgage-backed securities (MBS) became a trouble spot for banks. As the housing market soared, banks raised valuations for mortgage-backed securities. To increase borrowing and sell more loans, credit standards were relaxed. This meant banks were carrying a substantial amount of subprime loans.

As asset prices began to fall, banks began pulling back on loans to keep their liabilities in balance with assets. The end result was a housing bubble which sparked a housing crisis. During this time, the U.S. economy would enter one of the worst recessions in recent history.

The U.S. Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) eased rules regarding the use of mark to market accounting in 2009. This permitted banks to keep the values of mortgage-backed securities on their balance sheets when the value of those securities had dropped significantly. The measure meant banks were not forced to mark the value of those securities down.

Can You Mark Assets to Market?

The FASB oversees mark to market accounting standards. These standards, along with other accounting and financial reporting rules, apply to corporate entities and nonprofit organizations in the U.S. But it’s possible to use mark to market principles when making trades.

If you’re trading futures contracts, for instance, mark to market adjustments are made to your cash balance daily, based on the settlement price of the securities you hold. Your cash balance will increase or decrease based on the gains or losses reported for that day.

If the market moves in your favor, your account’s value would increase. But if the market moves against you and your futures contracts drop in value, your cash balance would adjust accordingly. You’d have to pay attention to maintenance margin requirements in order to avoid a margin call.

Which Assets Are Marked to Market?

Generally, the types of assets that are marked to market are ones that are bought and sold for cash relatively quickly — otherwise known as marketable securities. Assets that can be marked to market include stocks, futures, and mutual funds. These are assets for which it’s possible to determine a fair market value based on current market conditions.

When measuring the value of tangible and intangible assets, companies may not use the mark to market method. In the case of equipment, for example, they may use historical cost accounting which considers the original price paid for an asset and its subsequent depreciation. Meanwhile, different valuation methods may be necessary to determine the worth of intellectual property or a company’s brand reputation, which are intangible assets.

Mark to Market Losses

Mark to market losses occur when the value of an asset falls from one day to the next. A mark to market loss is unrealized since it only reflects the change in valuation of asset, not any capital losses associated with the sale of an asset for less than its purchase price. The loss happens when the value of the asset or security in question is adjusted to reflect its new market value.

Mark to Market Losses During Crises

Mark to market losses can be amplified during a financial crisis when it’s difficult to accurately determine the fair market value of an asset or security. When the stock market crashed, for instance, in 1929, banks were moved to devalue assets based on mark to market accounting rules. This helped turn what could have been a temporary recession into the Great Depression, one of the most significant economic events in stock market history.

Mark to Market Losses in 2008

During the 2008 financial crisis, mark to market accounting practices were a target of criticism as the housing market crashed. The market for mortgage-backed securities vanished, meaning the value of those securities took a nosedive.

Banks couldn’t sell those assets, and under mark to market accounting rules they had to be revalued. As a result banks collectively reported around $2 trillion in total mark to market losses.

The Takeaway

Mark to market is, as discussed, an accounting method that’s used to calculate the current or real value of a company’s assets. Mark to market is a helpful principle to understand, especially if you’re interested in futures trading.

When trading futures or trading on margin, it’s important to understand how mark to market calculations could affect your returns and your potential to be subject to a margin call. As always, if you feel like you’re in the weeds, it can be beneficial to speak with a financial professional for guidance.

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FAQ

Is mark to market accounting legal?

Mark to market account is a legal accounting practice, and is overseen by the FASB. Though it has been used in the past to cover financial losses, it remains a legal and viable method.

Is mark to market accounting still used?

Yes, mark to market accounting is still used both by businesses and individuals for investments and personal finance needs. In some sectors of the economy, it may even remain as one of the primary accounting methods.

What are mark to market losses?

Mark to market losses are losses that are generated as a result of an accounting entry, as opposed to a loss generated by the sale of an asset. The loss is incurred, under mark to market accounting, when the value of an asset declines, not when it is sold for less than it was purchased.


Photo credit: iStock/Drazen_

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