On the margin - The record amount being borrowed by investors is a worrying sign for markets


Jamie Lowry

Jamie Lowry

Fund Manager, Equity Value

‘Margin debt’ is the term used to describe money investors borrow from their stockbroker in order to buy shares. Naturally enough, when people feel bearish about markets, they tend not to borrow anything while, by the same token, the more bullish they feel the more they are inclined to borrow. As a result, margin debt levels are viewed by some as a way of gauging market sentiment.

Keen students of behavioural finance may not be too surprised to learn that, over time, margin debt levels have tended to be at their highest just before markets crash while, just before markets take off, investors tend to have net cash in their trading accounts. According to the New York stock exchange (NYSE), which publishes monthly data on the subject, net debt currently stands at record levels.

Now, in theory, investors could borrow money from their brokers and just let it sit in cash and the NYSE would still report that as a build-up of margin debt. To take this possibility out of the equation, therefore, a better way of considering the issue is to look at investors’ ‘free credit balance’, which – put simply – shows how much money they have borrowed specifically to buy shares.

This is what advisor perspectives has done in the chart below, where the red areas indicate a negative credit balance – and by extension bullish sentiment. as you can see, there are three clear red spikes –some $130bn (£77.3bn) of borrowing as the tech bubble burst in 2000; almost $80bn just ahead of the credit crisis in 2007; and a record $180bn or so at the end of February 2014.

Source: advisor perspectives, Inc. date: April 2014

They say a picture can be worth a thousand words but this one is arguably worth two. The Value Perspective leaves you to choose between ‘be careful’ or ‘uh oh’.


Jamie Lowry

Jamie Lowry

Fund Manager, Equity Value

I joined Schroders in 2004 as an equity analyst in the European Equity Team initially specializing in the Industrial sectors before moving on to Consumer-based companies and finally Insurance. In 2007, I became a co-manager on a fund investing in undervalued European companies and took on sole responsibility for the fund in May 2010. Prior to joining Schroders, I worked at Hedley & Co Stockbrokers and Deutsche Asset Management as a trainee analyst.

Important Information:

The views and opinions displayed are those of Ian Kelly, Nick Kirrage, Andrew Lyddon, Kevin Murphy, Andrew Williams, Andrew Evans and Simon Adler, members of the Schroder Global Value Equity Team (the Value Perspective Team), and other independent commentators where stated. They do not necessarily represent views expressed or reflected in other Schroders' communications, strategies or funds. The Team has expressed its own views and opinions on this website and these may change.

This article is intended to be for information purposes only and it is not intended as promotional material in any respect. Reliance should not be placed on the views and information on the website when taking individual investment and/or strategic decisions. Nothing in this article should be construed as advice. The sectors/securities shown above are for illustrative purposes only and are not to be considered a recommendation to buy/sell.

Past performance is not a guide to future performance and may not be repeated. The value of investments and the income from them may go down as well as up and investors may not get back the amounts originally invested.