Margin Call

What Is a Margin Call?

A margin call occurs when the value of an investor’s margin account falls below the broker’s required amount. An investor’s margin account contains securities bought with borrowed money (typically a combination of the investor’s own money and money borrowed from the investor’s broker).

A margin call refers specifically to a broker’s demand that an investor deposit additional money or securities into the account so that it is brought up to the minimum value, known as the maintenance margin.

A margin call is usually an indicator that one or more of the securities held in the margin account has decreased in value. When a margin call occurs, the investor must choose to either deposit additional funds or marginable securities in the account or sell some of the assets held in their account.

Key Takeaways

  • A margin call occurs when a margin account runs low on funds, usually because of a losing trade.
  • Margin calls are demands for additional capital or securities to bring a margin account up to the minimum maintenance margin.
  • Brokers may force traders to sell assets, regardless of the market price, to meet the margin call if the trader doesn’t deposit funds.
  • Since short sales can only be made in margin accounts, margin calls can also occur when a stock goes up in price and losses start mounting in accounts that have sold the stock short.

Margin Call

Understanding Margin Calls

When an investor pays to buy and sell securities using a combination of their own funds and money borrowed from a broker, it is called buying on margin. An investor’s equity in the investment is equal to the market value of the securities, minus the amount of the borrowed funds from their broker.

A margin call is triggered when the investor’s equity, as a percentage of the total market value of securities, falls below a certain percentage requirement (called the maintenance margin). If the investor cannot afford to pay the amount required to bring the value of their portfolio up to the account’s maintenance margin, then the broker may be forced to liquidate securities in the account at the market.

The New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA)—the regulatory body for the majority of securities firms operating in the United States—each requires that investors keep at least 25% of the total value of their securities as margin. Some brokerage firms require a higher maintenance requirement—as much as 30% to 40%.

Obviously, the figures and prices with margin calls depend on the percent of the margin maintenance and the equities involved.

Example of Meeting a Margin Call

In most instances, an investor can calculate the exact price to which a stock has to drop to trigger a margin call. Basically, it will occur when the account value, or account equity, equals the maintenance margin requirement (MMR). The formula would be expressed as:

Account Value = (Margin Loan) / (1 - MMR) 

For example, suppose an investor opens a margin account with $5,000 of their own money and $5,000 borrowed from their brokerage firm as a margin loan. They purchase 200 shares of a stock on margin at a price of $50. (Under Regulation T, a provision that governs the amount of credit that brokerage firms and dealers may extend to customers for the purchase of securities, an investor can borrow up to 50% of the purchase price.) Assume that this investor’s broker’s maintenance margin requirement is 30%.

The investor’s account has $10,000 worth of stock in it. In this example, a margin call will be triggered when the account value falls below $7,142.86 (i.e., margin loan of $5,000 / (1 - 0.30), which equates to a stock price of $35.71 per share.

Using the example above, let’s say the price of this investor’s stock falls from $50 to $35. Their account is now worth $7,000, which means that their account equity is now only $2,000 (i.e., $7,000 less the margin loan of $5,000). However, the account equity of $2,000 is now below the MMR of $2,100 (i.e., $7,000 x 30%). This will trigger a margin call of $100 (or $2,100 - $2,000).

In this scenario, the investor has one of three choices to rectify their margin deficiency of $100:

  1. Deposit $100 cash in the margin account.
  2. Deposit marginable securities worth $142.86 in their margin account, which will bring their account value back up to $7,142.86. Why is the marginable securities amount ($142.86) higher than the cash amount ($100) required to rectify the margin deficiency? Because securities fluctuate in value; therefore, while 100% of the cash amount can be used to rectify the margin deficiency, only 70% (i.e., 100% less 30% MMR) of the value of the marginable securities can be used to do so.
  3. Liquidate stock worth $333.33, using the proceeds to reduce the margin loan; at the current market price of $35, this works out to 9.52 shares, rounded off to 10 shares.

Margin Loan and Maintenance Margin Requirement

The amount of the margin loan depends on the purchase price, and therefore is a fixed amount. However, as the maintenance margin requirement (MMR) is based on the market value of a stock, and not on the initial purchase price, it can—and does—fluctuate.

If a margin call is not met, then a broker may close out any open positions to bring the account back up to the minimum value. They may be able to do this without the investor’s approval. This effectively means that the broker has the right to sell any stock holdings, in the requisite amounts, without letting the investor know. Furthermore, the broker may also charge an investor a commission on these transaction(s). This investor is held responsible for any losses sustained during this process.

The best way for an investor to avoid margin calls is to use protective stop orders to limit losses from any equity positions, in addition to keeping adequate cash and securities in the account.

Example of a Margin Call

Suppose an investor buys $100,000 of stock XYZ using $50,000 of their own funds. The investor borrows the remaining $50,000 from their broker. The investor’s broker has a maintenance margin of 25%. At the time of purchase, the investor’s equity as a percentage is 50%. The investor’s equity is calculated using this formula:

Investor’s Equity as Percentage = (Market Value of Securities - Borrowed Funds) / Market Value of Securities

So, in our example: ($100,000 - $50,000) / ($100,000) = 50%.

This is above the 25% maintenance margin. Suppose that two weeks later, the value of the purchased security falls to $60,000. This results in the investor’s equity falling to $10,000. (The market value of $60,000 minus the borrowed funds of $50,000, or 16.67%: $60,000 - $50,000 / $60,000.)

This is now below the maintenance margin of 25%. The broker makes a margin call and requires the investor to deposit at least $5,000 to meet the maintenance margin. The broker requires the investor to deposit $5,000 because the amount required to meet the maintenance margin is calculated as follows:

Amount to Meet Minimum Maintenance Margin = (Market Value of Securities × Maintenance Margin) - Investor’s Equity

So the investor needs at least $15,000 of equity—the market value of securities of $60,000 times the 25% maintenance margin—in their account to be eligible for margin. But they only have $10,000 in investor’s equity, resulting in a $5,000 deficiency: ($60,000 × 25%) - $10,000.

Is it Risky to Trade Stocks on Margin?

It is certainly riskier to trade stocks on margin than buy stocks without margin. This is because trading stocks on margin is akin to using leverage or debt, and leveraged trades are riskier than unleveraged ones. The biggest risk with margin trading is that investors can lose more than they have invested.

How Can a Margin Call Be Met?

A margin call is issued by the broker when there is a margin deficiency in the trader’s margin account. To rectify a margin deficiency, the trader has to either deposit cash or marginable securities in the margin account or liquidate some securities in the margin account to pay down part of the margin loan.

Can a Trader Delay Meeting a Margin Call?

A margin call must be satisfied immediately and without any delay. Although some brokers may give you two to five days to meet the margin call, the fine print of a standard margin account agreement will generally state that to satisfy an outstanding margin call, the broker has the right to liquidate any or all securities or other assets held in the margin account at its discretion and without prior notice to the trader. To prevent such forced liquidation, it is best to meet a margin call and rectify the margin deficiency promptly.

How Can I Manage the Risks Associated with Trading on Margin?

Measures to manage the risks associated with trading on margin include: using stop losses to limit losses; keeping the amount of leverage to manageable levels; and borrowing against a diversified portfolio to reduce the likelihood of a margin call, which is significantly higher with a single stock.

Does the Total Level of Margin Debt Have an Impact on Market Volatility?

A high level of margin debt may exacerbate market volatility. During steep market declines, clients are forced to sell stocks to meet margin calls. This can lead to a vicious circle, where intense selling pressure drives stock prices lower, triggering more margin calls and so on.

Article Sources
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  1. U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. "Investor Bulletin: Understanding Margin Accounts." Accessed Jan. 4, 2022.

  2. Financial Industry Regulatory Authority. “Margin Account Requirements.” Accessed Jan. 4, 2022.

  3. U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. “NYSE Rulemaking: Notice of Filing of Proposed Rule Change to Amend NYSE Rule 431 (“Margin Requirements”).” Accessed Jan. 4, 2022.

  4. U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. "Margin: Borrowing Money to Pay for Stocks." Accessed Jan. 4, 2022.

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