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Stock Markets Sit Blithely on a Powerful Time Bomb

by Wolf Richter, Wolf Street:

No one knows the full magnitude, but it’s huge.

How big is margin debt really, and how much of a threat is it to the stock market and to “financial stability,” as central banks like to call their concerns about crashes? Turns out, no one really knows.

What we do know: Margin debt, as reported monthly by the New York Stock Exchange, spiked to another record high of $528 billion. But it’s only part of the total outstanding margin debt – which is when investors borrow money from their broker, pledging their portfolio as collateral.

An example of unreported margin debt: Robo-advisory Wealthfront, a so-called fintech startup overseeing nearly $6 billion, announced that it would offer its clients loans against their portfolios.

“The dream house. The dream wedding. The dream kitchen. The dream vacation.” That’s how it introduced it in a blog post this week. “We want you to have your cake and eat it too,” it said.

Instant debt “without the hassle of paperwork,” it said. “We want our clients to be able to borrow what they need, when they need it, directly from their smartphones.” Secured by “your own investments.”

It’s a great deal as long as stocks are soaring. Clients with at least $100,000 in their account can borrow up to 30% of the account value. It’s seductive: No required monthly payments and no payoff date, though interest accrues and is added to the monthly balance. The rate is as low as 3.25%. “How’s that for flexibility?” it says.

That’s how margin debt is being pushed at the end of the cycle.

This borrowed money can be drawn out of the account to fund vacations or a down-payment of a house. But when stocks spiral down, as they’re known to do in highly leveraged markets, and fall below the margin requirement, clients get a margin call. They either have to put cash into the account to make up for the losses or they have to start liquidating their portfolio at the worst possible time.

This forced selling occurs across the spectrum during a sharp market downturn and drives prices down further and begets more forced selling. Margin debt is the great accelerator on the way up, and it’s the great accelerator on the way down. Crashes feed on margin debt.

So how much margin debt is out there? We know only the $528 billion reported by NYSE. Then there are companies like Wealthfront. But it’s just small fry. Big players have been doing this for a long time. These securities-based loans (SBLs) are called “shadow margin,” and no one knows how much of it is out there. But it’s a lot.

The New York Post took a look at it:

Finra, the brokerage regulator, doesn’t track it, nor does the Securities and Exchange Commission — even though both have warned investors about the risks.

However, several advisers surveyed by The Post estimated there is between $100 billion and $250 billion in outstanding SBLs among all brokerages.

Morgan Stanley is one of the few firms that says how much in SBLs it’s sold – $36 billion, as of Dec. 31, a 26-percent increase from the year before.

Other major sellers of the loans are UBS, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Raymond James, and Stifel Nicolaus, sources said.

Read More @ WolfStreet.com

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