Margin Calls Mount On Loans Against Stock Portfolios Used To Buy Homes, Boats, “Pretty Much Everything”

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In a securities-based loan, the customer pledges all or part of a portfolio of stocks, bonds, mutual funds and/or other securities as collateral. But unlike traditional margin loans, in which the client uses the credit to buy more securities, the borrowing is for other purchases such as real estate, a boat or education.

The result was “dangerously high margin balances,” said Jeff Sica, president at Morristown, N.J.-based Circle Squared Alternative Investments, which oversees $1.5 billion of mostly alternative investments. He said the products became “the vehicle of choice for investors looking to get cash for anything.” Mr. Sica and others say the products were aggressively marketed to investors by banks and brokerages.

From the Wall Street Journal article: Margin Calls Bite Investors, Banks

Today’s article from the Wall Street Journal on investors taking out large loans backed by portfolios of stocks and bonds is one of the most concerning and troubling finance/economics related articles I have read all year.

Many of you will already be aware of this practice, but many of you will not. In a nutshell, brokers are permitting investors to take out loans of as much as 40% of the value from a portfolio of equities, and up to a terrifying 80% from a bond portfolio. The interest rates are often minuscule, as low as 2%, and since many of these clients are wealthy, the loans are often used to purchase boats and real estate.

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At the height of last cycle’s credit insanity, we saw average Americans take out large home loans in order to do renovations, take vacations, etc. While we know how that turned out, there was at least some sense to it. These people obviously didn’t want liquidate their primary residence in order to do these things they couldn’t actually afford, so they borrowed against it.

In the case of these financial assets loans, the investors could easily liquidate parts of their portfolio in order to buy their boats or houses. This is what a normal, functioning sane financial system would look like. Rather, these clients are so starry eyed with financial markets, they can’t bring themselves to sell a single bond or share in order to purchase a luxury item, or second home. Of course, Wall Street is encouraging this behavior, since they can then earn the same amount of fees managing financial assets, while at the same time earning money from the loan taken out against them.

I don’t even want to contemplate the deflationary impact that this practice will have once the cycle turns in earnest. Devastating momentum liquidation is the only thing that comes to mind.

So when you hear about margin loans against stocks, it’s not just to buy more stocks. It’s also to buy “pretty much everything…”

From the Wall Street Journal:

Loans backed by investment portfolios have become a booming business for Wall Street brokerages. Now the bill is coming due—for both the banks and their clients.

Among the largest firms, Morgan Stanley had $25.3 billion in securities-based loans outstanding as of June 30, up 37% from a year earlier. Bank of America, which owns brokerage firm Merrill Lynch, had $38.6 billion in such loans outstanding as of the end of June, up 14.2% from the same period last year. And Wells Fargo & Co. said last month that its wealth unit saw average loans, including these loans and traditional margin loans, jump 16% to $59.3 billion from last year.

In a securities-based loan, the customer pledges all or part of a portfolio of stocks, bonds, mutual funds and/or other securities as collateral. But unlike traditional margin loans, in which the client uses the credit to buy more securities, the borrowing is for other purchases such as real estate, a boat or education.

Securities-based loans surged in the years after the financial crisis as banks retreated from home-equity and other consumer loans. Amid a years long bull market for stocks, the loans offered something for everyone in the equation: Clients kept their portfolios intact, financial advisers continued getting fees based on those assets and banks collected interest revenue from the loans.

This is the reason Wall Street loves these things. You earn on both sides, while making the financial system much more vulnerable. Ring a bell?

The result was “dangerously high margin balances,” said Jeff Sica, president at Morristown, N.J.-based Circle Squared Alternative Investments, which oversees $1.5 billion of mostly alternative investments. He said the products became “the vehicle of choice for investors looking to get cash for anything.” Mr. Sica and others say the products were aggressively marketed to investors by banks and brokerages.

Even before Wednesday’s rally, some banks said they were seeing few margin calls because most portfolios haven’t fallen below key thresholds in relation to loan values.

“When the markets decline, margin calls will rise,” said Shannon Stemm, an analyst at Edward Jones, adding that it is “difficult to quantify” at what point widespread margin calls would occur.

Bank of America’s clients through Merrill Lynch and U.S. Trust are experiencing margin calls, but the numbers vary day to day, according to spokesman for the bank. He added the bank allows Merrill Lynch and U.S. Trust clients to pledge investments in lieu of down payments for mortgages.

Clients may be able to borrow only 40% or less of the value of concentrated stock positions or as much as 80% of a bond portfolio. Interest rates for these loans are relatively low—from about 2% annually on large loans secured by multi million-dollar accounts to around 5% on loans less than $100,000.

80% against a bond portfolio. Yes you read that right. Think about how crazy this is with China now selling treasuries, and U.S. government bonds likely near the end of an almost four decades bull market.  
 

About 18 months ago, he took out a $93,000 loan through Neuberger Berman, collateralized by about $260,000 worth of stocks and bonds, and used the proceeds to buy his share in a three-unit investment property in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, N.Y. He says that his portfolio, up about 3% since he took out the loan, would need to fall 25% before he would worry about a margin call.

Regulators earlier this year had stepped up their scrutiny of these loans due to their growing popularity at brokerages. The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority put securities-based loans on its so-called watch list for 2015 to get clarity on how securities-based loans are marketed and the risk the loans may pose to clients.

“We’re paying careful attention to this area,” said Susan Axelrod,head of regulatory affairs for Finra.

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I think the window for “paying close attention” closed several years ago.

All I have to say about this is, good lord.

by Mike Kreiger

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