What Are Variation Margins? How Do They Work?

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

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What Are Variation Margins? How Do They Work?

Margin variation is money needed to maintain margin level in a margin account. Variation margins serve as collateral or security against potential losses. Another way to think of it is as unrealized profit or loss in open derivative positions.

When a margin account balance drops below the brokerage’s specified limits, the brokerage can extend a margin call to request a futures variation margin payment. If a trader does not have the funds to meet the margin call, the brokerage may sell securities in their account to make up the difference.

What Is Variation Margin?

Variation margin is a collateral payment made by one party to a counterparty to cover any change in value of underlying assets used in futures contracts.

Traders may make these payments on a day-to-day or intraday basis as directed by the clearing house. Variation margin serves as a risk management tool for the clearing house. By collecting these payments, the clearing house can sustain its targeted risk level while allowing traders to have margin debt in their accounts.

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Margin Trading Basics

To understand variation margins, it’s helpful to review some of the basics of margin trading. When an investor trades on margin, it essentially means they’re trading using borrowed money. So, for example, an investor who wants to purchase futures contracts may invest 50% of their own money and borrow the remaining 50% from their brokerage.

In exchange, the brokerage requires investors to maintain an initial margin, maintenance margin, and variation margin amount in liquid funds. Each one represents a different balance threshold. Margin accounts require investors to meet the minimum requirements.

Recommended: How Does a Margin Account Work?

How Do Variation Margins Work?

Variation margin works by filling gaps in margin account balance levels. When trading futures, variation margin allows clearing houses to continue facilitating trades while managing risk. Understanding stock volatility can help with understanding how variation margin works.

Equity prices fluctuate as volatility ebbs and flows in the markets. Changing prices can directly affect investor profits or losses, and trading equity derivatives on margin can amplify those profits and losses.

Variation margins work by accounting for changes in the prices of financial securities being traded. Traders make these payments, typically in cash, from the party who lost value to the party that’s gained value in a margin transaction. The amount due depends on the type of security being traded, expected price movements for that security and overall market conditions. That’s why it’s called variation margin, as the amount may vary from transaction to transaction.

Variation Margin Example

Here’s a simple example of how variation margin works. Assume an investor purchases 100 shares of stock for $30 each. The initial margin for the purchase is set at 50%. This would mean the broker would need to have $1,500 in their account at all times in order to make trades (50% of 100 x $30). Meanwhile, the maintenance margin is $1,000.

If the stock’s share price were to fall to $20, then the brokerages would deduct $1,000 in losses from the initial margin balance. Now the initial margin balance is $500. The new initial margin amount required becomes $1,000 (50% of 100 shares x $20 per share). So the investor would have to add $500 to their account as a variation margin payment to meet the new initial margin requirement.

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Variation Margin Calculation

Calculating variation margin depends on the type of security being traded and its price movements. So it’s something that must be done on a transaction-by-transaction basis, since every security is different.

But there is a simple variation margin formula that can be used for calculations:

VM = Initial margin – Margin balance

So to calculate variation margin, an investor needs to know three things:

•   Initial margin requirement

•   Maintenance margin requirement

•   Current price of the underlying security

Finding variation margin means doing some math to determine how much the new initial margin requirement works out to when the price of the underlying security drops. But as the previous variation example illustrates, it’s not overly complicated.

Initial Margin vs Variation Margin

Initial margin and variation margin are often mentioned together when discussing margin trading but they’re not the same thing. Initial margin refers to the amount of money an investor can borrow inside a margin account.

Regulation T of the Federal Reserve Board allows investors to borrow up to 50% of the purchase price of securities being traded on margin. Though some brokerages may require a larger deposit to satisfy initial margin requirements.

Initial Margin

Variation Margin

Money that must be paid upfront to purchase securities on margin Money that’s paid when a security being traded on margin loses value
Paid in cash prior to purchasing securities Paid daily or intraday, typically in cash
Federal regulations set at initial margin at a minimum of 50% of the security’s price, though brokerages may set the amount higher Amounts due for variation margin can depend on the type of security, its price movements, and market conditions.

Variation Margin and Maintenance Margin

Maintenance margin is another term often used in discussions of margin trading and it’s often used synonymously with variation margin. The maintenance margin represents the minimum amount of equity a trader must maintain in a margin account at all times. Equity is the difference between the value of securities held in the account and any amounts owed to the brokerage.

Under Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) rules, maintenance margin must be at least 25% of the total market value of margin securities being held. Brokerage firms set the bar higher, however, requiring investors to meet a 30% or 40% margin maintenance requirement.

The maintenance margin is not the same thing as minimum margin. Minimum margin is the minimum amount required to open a margin account. FINRA requires this amount to be $2,000 or 100% of the purchase price of margin securities, whichever is less.

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The Takeaway

To recap, variation margin is a collateral payment made by one party to a counterparty to cover any change in value of underlying assets when discussing futures contracts. It’s a fairly high-level concept, and many investors may not need to worry much about it, or even encounter it if they stick to a relatively simple investment strategy.

With that said, margin trading can potentially yield significant returns for investors, though it has more risks than traditional trading. Understanding variation margin and margin requirements can help traders manage that risk.

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Is variation margin a derivative?

Variation margin is not a derivative, but is a factor in derivatives markets. It’s one of the chief types of collateral that is required to protect investors or other parties in the market.

Is variation margin the same as mark to market?

Variation margin is a type of collateral, and is determined, in part, but the size of a party’s exposure in a trade – that, too, depends on mark-to-market value of the derivatives at play. As such, the two are not the same.

Can variation margin be negative?

It is possible for variation margin to be negative, and in that case, it would mean that there’s been a loss.

Is variation margin collateral?

Variation margin is a type of collateral, and is payment made by one party to a counterparty to cover any change in value of underlying assets used in futures contracts.

Why is variation margin important?

For investors or traders, variation margin is important as it informs them of the amount of funds that they need to solidify margin levels in order to trade.

Photo credit: iStock/Prostock-Studio

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