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Trading News

Expanding Margin Rates in Silver

The CME Group yesterday announced that it would be bumping the margin on the silver futures contract from $5000 to $6500 effective today. That’s a 30% bump, which no doubt has impacted some traders. In making this move, the exchange increased the margin from about 3.6% (at current prices as I write this) to about 4.7% (a silver contract being 5000 troy ounces). The chart below explains the move.

Silver prices have jumped about 50% since the end of August. Back then, the $5000 margin was about 5.4%. Volatility was also significantly lower. Now we’re looking at a much higher price and significantly higher volatility. The futures exchanges will make adjustments to margins based on both factors as they see fit. It’s interesting in this case, though, that they haven’t bumped it up to the approximate level it was before.

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Trading News

More New Margin Requirements

I posted before about the NFA’s new rules on maximum forex trading leverage permissible for traders with US brokerage accounts (see New NFA Retail Forex Leverage Restrictions). Those went into effect on Monday. Tuesday new leverage rules kicked in for the trading in leveraged ETFs. Darwin’s Finance has a good write-up on the subject.

I find it somewhat interesting that margins on short ETFs is higher than on long ones. Granted, equities do tend to move more rapidly to the downside, but a double long ETF is going to move just as quickly as a double short when the market is falling (considering day time frame moves here, which is what the leveraged ETFs are intended to track). It’s basic math, so I see no real justification for the higher margin between the two.

The other interesting part of this is that even with the new margin requirements you can still trade at effectively 4:1 leverage. That’s a fair amount of leverage when you consider how much volatility there can be in the markets underlying these ETFs. Many experienced forex traders don’t go much beyond 10:1 leverage when they trade, and that’s in a lower volatility market (see Looking at Volatility Across Markets)

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Trading News

New NFA Forex Leverage Limits In Effect Today

I wrote a while back (New NFA Retail Forex Leverage Restrictions) about new rules coming into effect from the NFA which limit the amount of leverage US member forex brokers are permitted to allow their customers. Those new rules start today. If you have a US brokerage account you have probably already received notice about the rules if your broker previous offered more than 100:1 leverage, which is the new cap.

Also, the margin must be calculated from the notional value of the position. I believe this has forced a change among some brokers who previously set their margin based on the size of a position rather than its value. For example, they would require $1000 margin on a 100,000 EUR/USD trade. Under the new rule they would have to require 1% of the value of the position be posted as margin. If EUR/USD is trading at 1.50, then a standard lot position would be worth $150,00, meaning a $1500 margin requirement.

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Trading News

New NFA Retail Forex Leverage Restrictions

The National Futures Association (NFA) is not well liked by many retail forex traders because of restrictions they put in place earlier this year.  You may recall my posts NFA rule which effectively bans the practice of “hedging”, NFA Justifications and Reasoning for Killing Forex Hedging, and New NFA Rule Impacts More Than Just Forex Hedging and all the discussions that went on around them (literally hundreds of comments). They forced some changes to the way brokers handle positions and transactions, and the way some traders did their thing (or forced them to switch their account to non-US regulatory coverage).

Well, in case you haven’t heard yet, the NFA is back at it.

Effective November 30 they will be requiring US-based retail forex brokers to cap available leverage at 100:1. To quote the notice to members:

“…beginning on November 30, 2009, all FDMs must collect a customer security deposit of at least 1% for the currencies listed in Section 12 and at least 4% for all other currencies.”

The Section 12 currencies are the majors and some of the big European regional ones: British pound (GBP), the Swiss franc (CHF), the Canadian dollar (CAD), the Japanese yen (JPY), the Euro (EUR), the Australian dollar (AUD), the New Zealand dollar (NZD), the Swedish krona (SEK), the Norwegian krone (NOK), and the Danish krone (DKK). The US dollar (USD) is not specifically listed, but obviously it’s included.

As I understand it, any pair which includes at least one of the above currencies is covered by the 1% margin rule (100:1 leverage). In other words, the Mexican peso (MXN) isn’t on the list, but USD/MXN would fall under the 1% margin rule because the USD is part of the pair. All other currency pairs fall under the 4% (25:1) rule.

Value vs. Size
Note that according to the proposed rule change that was sent by the NFA to the CFTC for approval (the latter regulates the former) the margin must be calculated from the notional value of the position. I believe this is going to force a change among some brokers who have set their margin based on the size of a position rather than its value. For example, they would require $1000 margin on a 100,000 EUR/USD trade. Under the new rule they would have to require 1% of the value of the position. If EUR/USD is trading at 1.50, then a standard lot position would be worth $150,00, meaning a $1500 margin requirement.

It’s Actually More Leverage
This rule is actually an expansion of permissible leverage over what the NFA had proposed back in 2003. At that point they wanted 2% for the Section 12 currencies. That would have only permitted 50:1 leverage, which is closer to what the futures market margin rates are at (though still well short). The members put up a fuss at that point, however, and got them to put a hold on implementation of the rule.

Higher Leverage Means More NFA Action Against Brokers
The rules change proposal noted above also indicates that brokers permitting higher than 100:1 leverage were more apt to be the subject of NFA and/or CFTC enforcement action. At the same time, the two NFA member brokers capping leverage at 50:1 were never the subject of such action. Oanda is one of those brokers. I don’t know the other.

The NFA has indicated that it is concerned about an increased account burn-up rate at higher leverage points. While leverage is only a tool, it’s clearly that it is a dangerous tool in the hands of many new traders, even more so when you consider that those brokers offering the higher leverage seem more apt to engage in shenanigans.

Actually, the NFA proposal letter notes that one broker who offers 700:1 leverage (yikes!) actually claimed that it allows customers to employ tighter stops. I know this may sound like a contradiction, but I’ve long held that tight stops are a trap (see Close stops do not lower your risk). This 700:1 broker should be shut down if it honestly believes that higher leverage is required for tight stops. What are they smoking over there? I’d love to hear the logic. It would no doubt be quite humorous.

My Reaction
I’m perfectly fine with this rule. In fact, it really has no impact on my own trading. I have long traded through Oanda with their 50:1 maximum permissible leverage and never found myself constrained. A great many experienced forex traders will likely have the same response as they tend not to trade at much more than 10:1 or 20:1 actual leverage.

Also, I think the 100:1 leverage keeps the spot forex market in a good competitive position vis-a-vis the currency futures market.

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Reader Questions Answered

Where does forex leverage come from?

A question was posted on BabyPips which occurred to me as being something readers here might wonder about as well.

I understand that it comes from other people’s deposits and from the broker’s capital. However, where is the limit? I understand that with stocks, its basically a loan from a bank, i.e., you will pay interest if you hold it for any appreciable amount of time.

Forex has only the interest rates on the currency themselves. But, there has to be limit, right? To do a crazy example, let’s say you dumped $10mil cash in a forex account. At 1:400, that would be $4 billion. That makes no sense since most brokers don’t have nearly that amount of capital – even if they did, it would leave no capital left for other traders to use.

So where exactly does the money come from? Most offer high leverage in comparison to stocks, or certain other instruments, so I’m just wondering how this is possible. I’m aware that not everyone will be using 100% leverage 100% of the time, but there still has to be limits.

The question comes from what would seem to be an incorrect mental point of reference where the forex market is concerned. The poster is expressing things in terms of stocks where actual ownership of an asset takes place. This is erroneous. Spot forex is akin to the futures market where traders are exchanging agreements, not ownership.

Forex = Futures
In the futures market when a trader goes long gold, for example, what’s happening is that they are agreeing to buy gold at a defined price at some specified time in the future. They aren’t buying the gold now, just agreeing to so it in the future – thus the term “futures”. The value of their position is based on the fact that their agreement is at a fixed price, while market prices are changing, potentially giving them a chance to sell that gold (were they to take delivery) at a higher price than where they bought it. Of course they do not have to hold the futures position through until delivery. They can simply enter into an offsetting agreement and thereby get flat.

Spot forex is basically a 2-day futures contract (technically a forward, but they are essentially the same thing). That means when a trader goes long EUR/USD, for example, they have entered into an agreement to provide USD in exchange for receiving EUR. When the trader wants to close out that position they enter into an offsetting agreement (call it going short if you like). If the trader holds a position overnight, the broker basically offsets the open trade at the end of the current day and then opens a new one at the start of the new day. That’s the roll. Depending on the broker that is either obvious or transparent.

Margin is Surety, Not Down Payment
With forex being an agreement based market, not an ownership market, the capital requirements of the liquidity providers are much lower relative to the size of the trading volumes than would otherwise be the case. This is because margin in forex (and futures) is a surety for the broker (and the system as a whole) to make sure there is coverage for any variation in the value of the future/forward contract the trader might experience. This is different from in stocks where a trader operating on margin is actually borrowing money to be able to purchase (thus own) more stock than they could have otherwise, much like a home-buyer takes out a mortgage. The stock margin is basically a collateralized loan.

No Ownership Means Lower Capital Requirements
Since a forex broker isn”t actually exchanging EUR for USD when a customer goes long a lot of EUR/USD, it doesn’t need to have 100,000 EUR on-hand (putting aside the whole matching up of customer positions brokers do on the back end). It’s not like a stock dealer which actually has to have the capital (or sufficient lines of credit) to own the shares it’s making a market in.

That’s why forex brokers can offer such high leverage ratios.

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Reader Questions Answered

How can forex brokers provide so much leverage?

Margin and leverage in trading are topics that cause a great deal of confusion to new traders. I received yet another question in that area recently, though with a bit of a different twist to it.

On the relationship between leverage and margin: I read that traders borrow money in margin account. In stocks, like in Malaysia, usually the brokerage firm is a subdivision of a bank, so it is the bank who lend the money. But in forex, who actually lend the money? Is it the broker? Does that mean, the broker is really really rich (like, if min leverage is 1:100, so it must have at least 100 times of the deposits of their clients.)?

As this individual noted, in stock trading the institution through which you are trading lends you the money to buy stocks on margin. Generally speaking that means you will have to pay them interest on that loan.

In forex trading things are a bit different. On the one side you are borrowing the currency you are short. That is then converted into the currency you are long, which is then deposited. In all of this you are paying an overnight interest rate on the currency you borrow (are short) and receiving an overnight rate on the currency you deposit (are long). The difference between the two is the net interest carry you will pay or receive.

Now, as to whether the broker is really rich to be able to over this kind of leverage, no. They do have considerable capital (the larger ones have over $100 million in capital), but not the amount I think this person has in mind. Why? Because they are mostly netting out customer positions against each other.

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Trading Tips

Keeping things simple in your trading

Beanieville posted Don’t Let All Those Technical Analysis Gurus Confuse You on Tuesday with the primary suggestion being that one should keep things simple by avoiding derivatives and leverage, and a secondary one to keep your analysis relatively simple. The title obviously only applies to that second point, but I think the general message that less complexity is better for most traders is a good one.

In particular, there’s a quote that goes:

“If you’ve been to some options or futures trading sites most of you probably feel like you don’t belong because of all apparently sophisticated analysis of the market, with so many trendlines and so many indicators you never heard of.”

I’m going to agree with the part about all the lines and indicators all over charts. I see it all the time, even among my professional colleagues. If that’s what works for them, fine, but I’m definitely not a fan. The charts I look at are simple, without all kinds of trendlines, Fibonacci retracement levels, Elliott Wave counts, oscilators and all that. To me the rest of it is clutter which serves no other purpose than to distract and obscure the important part – what prices are doing.

Now, having said that, the idea that options and futures traders are the main culprits here is just plain wrong. I’ve seen stock traders with some of the most intense charts ever. Market complexity does not necessarily equate to analysis complexity. It’s a personal thing for each individual trader. I’ll leave it to them to decide what’s best for them in the end.

The other contention made by Beanieville is that traders should avoid options and futures and leverage (which I presume would include forex as well). I’m mixed in this one.

On the one side, I’ve answered a lot of questions about leverage and margin from confused traders. For many folks it would be best to stick to simpler markets at first, until they have a solid grasp of things from that perspective before taking on leveraged trading.

That said, there are plenty of folks who quickly grasp futures and options and such. I have no problem with them starting in the perceived deep end of the pool, as long as they have a healthy appreciation for the risk side of the equation.

The bottom line for me is that different people are going to be best suited to trade different instruments. Keeping them from trading in that fashion virtually guarantess they perform below their potential.