Margin Trading Dangers Highlighted by Real Cases

By: Alan King
Several high profile company share price collapses on the Australian Stock Exchange early in 2008 highlight the danger posed to ordinary shareholders from large scale margin trading of shares by directors of listed firms. So dramatic have been the consequences that no equities investor can afford to ignore the lessons.

Significant shareholdings by directors in a listed company have traditionally been viewed favourably as an alignment of executives' and other private shareholders' interests, but this ideal can be dramatically compromised in cases where those large shareholdings have been aggregated through, and remain security for, margin loans. Directors leveraging into positions well beyond their capacity to meet margin calls may create a known and acceptable risk for themselves but their actions inescapably also create a significant but hidden and usually unsuspected risk for other shareholders.

On exposure in a falling market, the consequences can be devastating to all concerned.

Basically margin trading involves borrowing through a brokerage to purchase shares on deposit with the shares purchased being held as collateral for the loan.

As with all leveraged investments the potential for both amplified profits and losses exists, but particular additional risks attach to margin trading of shares.

Depending on the particular share being purchased and subject to other margin account criteria such as maintenance of a minimum balance, a private investor may be able to borrow, say, 50 loan to collateral value must be maintained at all times - hence a 50, owing to the director's perceived influence on the company and the scale of business such a purchase will bring to the margin broker. Thus the director's margin is only 20 of the purchase price of one million $10 shares through a margin broker. Borrowings amount to $8 million with $2 million "equity" being put up by the director to complete the $10 million purchase. Furthermore, the margin trading agreement states that a minimum 80 to a market value of $9 per share will reduce the director's holding of 1 million shares to a value of $9 million, but still carrying the $8 million debt and therefore breaching the 80 loss) will then be served with a "margin call" for a further $1 million to re-establish the original loan/asset ratio. Failure to meet the call will invoke conditions allowing the margin broker to sell some of the holding to re-establish the required 80 in the $10 share price to $8 would see the director's initial $2 million equity wiped out altogether and, in the absence of any margin call being met, the broker would very likely dump the entire holding at best price to minimise losses. Apart from sheer pressure of volume, attendant negative publicity through stock exchange disclosure requirements would probably see the company's share price devastated even though the company may remain as a viable enterprise. Any shortfall in recovery by the broker through sale of shares held as collateral would remain a liability against the director.

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