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Margin Calls

Margin calls can wipe out an investor’s brokerage account equity in a short period of time. The use of margin collateralized with brokerage account assets exposes investors to greater risk and costs. Margin interest increases the breakeven rate of return required for a particular investment strategy.  A brokerage account cost ratio measures breakeven rate of return which includes all costs, including commissions and margin interest. When margin is used, the required net rate of return needed to breakeven increases to pay all interest charges. The higher required rate of return that is necessary may require a change from a more conservative investment strategy to a riskier one. This greater return and its corresponding risk are many times not disclosed to investors. This fact must be weighed carefully and disclosed by a brokerage firm and its stockbroker. Some brokerage firms and stockbrokers recommend the use of margin or securities-backed lending to diversify. The use of margin or other loans in many situations is considered unsuitable investment advice.

Financial Incentives to Recommend Margin

Many brokerage firms provide financial incentives to stockbrokers who recommend the use of margin in brokerage accounts because the lending activities represent a substantial source of revenues. The margin loans are fully collateralized with no chance of default because of the protections provided to the brokerage firms in the margin agreements. Margin agreements and lending regulations create a risk free lending business model for brokerage firms. For these profits, financial incentives are given to financial advisors whose clients’ accounts have margin loans. These incentives include greater commissions because it increases the amount of assets the financial advisor can manage.

Understanding Risks of Margin Calls

Margin accounts are very risky and are only suitable for sophisticated investors who can assume the substantial risk of loss in invested capital. Before an investor uses margin, they should be advised by brokerage firms and stockbrokers that:

  • they can lose more money than their initial investment;
  • they may have to deposit additional cash or securities in their account to meet margin calls;
  • they may be forced to sell some or all of their account positions to meet margin calls; and
  • brokerage firms may sell some or all of your securities without consulting you to meet margin calls.

Brokerage firms and stockbrokers can protect your brokerage account equity through risk management strategies in the event the price of the stock purchased on margin declines. A financial advisor should calculate the decline in account value that will trigger a margin call. Brokerage firms and stockbrokers should recommend the use of risk management strategies in brokerage accounts to avoid the risk of margin calls.

Tax Treatment of Margin Interest

Many brokerage firms and stockbrokers advise customers to use margin because of the tax deductibility. In some instances, they suggest that all the interest is tax deductible. However, multiple factors need to be taken into consideration including:

  • Margin interest deduction for interest paid, not a just accrued;
  • Margin interest as it relates to taxable investments such as stocks, bonds or certificates of deposit, subject to the investment interest limitations;
  • Margin accounts with municipal bonds may reduce the amount of loan interest that is deductible;
  • Margin interest is only deductible to the extent of investment income;
  • There may be no margin interest deductions for margin balances attributed to personal expenditures.

Most brokerage firm compliance manuals prohibit financial advisors from providing tax advice. Nonetheless, many financial advisors do so when they recommend the use of margin and state that the margin interest is tax deductible.

The Silver Law Group can help you determine whether an investment loss is the result of a brokerage firm and their financial advisor’s unsuitable use of margin in an investment account. If an investor suffers losses as a result of margin calls they may be able recover their losses in a FINRA arbitration claim.


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