What Is Initial Margin? Examples and Minimums

By Colin Dodds · December 23, 2023 · 7 minute read

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What Is Initial Margin? Examples and Minimums

When an investor buys a security using a margin account, the initial margin or initial margin requirement is how much of the purchase price – represented as a percentage – that the investor must cover with either cash or the collateral in that account.

The Federal Reserve Board’s Regulation T sets the minimum initial margin at 50%, meaning investors trading on a margin account must have cash or collateral to cover at least half of the market value of the securities they buy on margin.

Using Initial Margin

Investors who want to open a margin account at a brokerage must first deposit the initial margin requirement. They can make that deposit in the form of cash, securities or other collateral, and the amount they deposit will vary depending on how much trading the investor plans to do on margin, and where the brokerage firm sets its initial margin.

Once the investor makes that initial margin deposit as collateral, they essentially have a line of credit with which they can begin margin trading. That line of credit allows the investor to buy securities with money borrowed from the brokerage.

As noted, Regulation T sets minimum initial margin levels. It’s important to note, however, that the Federal Reserve Board’s Regulation T only sets the minimum for margin accounts. Brokerage firms offering margin accounts can set their initial margin requirement higher than 50% based on the markets, their clients, and their own business considerations. But brokerages cannot set the initial margins for their clients any lower than 50%. The level that a brokerage sets for margin is known as the “house requirement.”

Risks of Margin Trading

Trading on margin brings its own unique set of opportunities and risks. It can lead to outsized profits if investors buy appreciating stocks on margin. But if investors buy sinking securities on margin, they can lose even more than if they’d purchased the securities outright.

In the unfortunate situation where the securities purchased on margin lose all value, the investor must deposit the full purchase price of the securities to cover the loss. Given these risks, you’re typically not able to trade on margin in retirement accounts such as an IRA or a 401(k).

Sometimes investors use margin to short a stock, or bet that it will lose value. In that instance, they’d borrow shares from the brokerage firm that holds a position in the stock and sell them to another investor. If the share price goes down, the investor can purchase them back at a lower price.

In general, investors looking for safer investments might want to avoid margin trading, due to their inherent risk. Investors with a high appetite for risk, however, might appreciate the ability to generate outsize returns.

💡 Quick Tip: When you’re actively investing in stocks, it’s important to ask what types of fees you might have to pay. For example, brokers may charge a flat fee for trading stocks, or require some commission for every trade. Taking the time to manage investment costs can be beneficial over the long term.

How Do You Calculate Initial Margin?

An investor who wants to trade in a margin account, must first determine how much to deposit as an initial margin. While that will depend on how much the investor wants to trade, and how big a role margin will play in their strategy, there are some guidelines.

The New York Stock Exchange and some of the other securities exchanges require that investors have at least $2,000 in their accounts. For day traders, the minimum initial margin is $25,000. Each brokerage has its own set of requirements in terms of the amount clients need to keep as collateral, and the minimum size of the account necessary to trade on margin.

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Initial Margin Requirement Examples

It’s possible, for example, that a brokerage firm might require 65% initial margin. That’s the first number an investor needs to know. The next is how much they plan to invest. The initial margin calculation simply requires the investor to multiply the investment amount by the initial margin requirement percentage. For an investor who wants to buy $20,000 of a given security, they will take that purchase price, multiply it by the margin requirement is 65% or 0.65 – to arrive at an initial margin requirement of $13,000.

The advantage for the investor is that they get $20,000 of exposure to that stock for only $13,000. In a scenario where the investor is buying a stock at a 50% margin, that investor can buy twice as many shares as they could if they bought them outright. That can double their return if the stock goes up. But if the stock drops, that investor could lose twice as much money.

If the price falls far enough, the investor could get a margin call from their broker. That means that they must deposit additional funds. Otherwise, the broker will sell the stock in their account to cover the borrowed money.

Initial Margin vs Maintenance Margin

For investors who buy securities on margin, the initial margin is an important number to know when starting out. But once the investor has opened a margin account at their brokerage, it’s important to know the maintenance margin as well.

The maintenance margin is the minimum amount of money that an investor has to keep in their margin account after they’ve purchased securities on margin. It is generally lower than the initial margin.

Currently, the minimum maintenance margin, as set by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA,) is 25% of the total value of the margin account. As with the initial margin requirements, however, 25% is only the minimum that the investor must have deposited in a margin account. The reality is that brokerage firms can – and often do – require that investors in margin accounts maintain a margin of between 30% to 40% of the total value of the account.

Some brokerage firms refer to the maintenance margin by other terms, including a minimum maintenance or a maintenance requirement. The initial margin on futures contracts may be significantly lower.

Maintenance Margin Example

As an example of a maintenance margin, an investor with $10,000 of securities in a margin account with a 25% maintenance margin must maintain at least $2,500 in the account. But if the value of their investment goes up to $15,000, the investor has to keep pace by raising the amount of money in their margin account to reach the maintenance margin, which rises to $3,750.

Maintenance Margin Calls

If the value of the investor’s margin account falls below the maintenance margin, then they can face a margin call, or else the brokerage will sell the securities in the account to cover the difference between what’s in their account and the maintenance margin.

With a maintenance margin, the investor could also face a margin call if the investment goes up in value. That’s because as the investment goes up, the percentage of margin in relation by comparison goes down.

The Takeaway

Initial margin requirements and maintenance margins are just two considerations for investors who are looking to trade on margin. They allow investors to understand how much cash they need to hand on hand in order to trade on margin — and when they might be susceptible to a margin call.

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What is an example of initial margin?

If initial margin is 65% and an investor wants to purchase $20,000 of a given security, they will take that purchase price, multiply it by the margin requirement is 65% or 0.65 – to arrive at an initial margin requirement of $13,000.

Is initial margin refundable?

Yes, initial margin is refundable, as it acts as a deposit put forward to enact a transaction or trade.

Why is initial margin important?

Initial margin is important because it acts as a form of collateral to cover a loss in the event loses money using borrowed funds. It helps the lender – or brokerage – recoup some of those losses.

Why is initial margin paid?

Initial margin is paid or put forth to act as a deposit or a form of collateral and establish good faith between a borrower and lender, typically an investor or trader and their brokerage.

Who sets the initial margin requirement?

Initial margin requirements are established by the Federal Reserve’s Regulation T. But there can also be other requirements put in place by an individual brokerage, and FINRA’s additional margin rules can further increase the amount.

Does initial margin have to be cash?

Generally, initial margin needs to be in the form of cash deposits, but it’s possible that some brokerages will allow it to take the form of other securities, such as government bonds.

Is initial margin a cost?

Initial margin is not a cost per se, but a form of collateral, and is money that is returned or refunded like a deposit. As such, it’s not spent or a typical “cost,” though it may be a financial barrier of sorts for some traders.

Photo credit: iStock/FG Trade

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