NYSE Margin Debt Drifts Higher In August [Dow Jones Industrial Average, SPDR S&P 500 ETF Trust]

debtDoug Short: The NYSE has released new data for margin debt, now available through August. I’ve updated the charts in this commentary to include the latest numbers.

The New York Stock Exchange publishes end-of-month data for margin debt on the NYXdata website, where we can also find historical data back to 1959. Let’s examine the numbers and study the relationship between margin debt and the market, using the S&P 500 as the surrogate for the latter.

The first chart shows the two series in real terms — adjusted for inflation to today’s dollar using the Consumer Price Index as the deflator. I picked 1995 as an arbitrary start date. We were well into the Boomer Bull Market that began in 1982 and approaching the start of the Tech Bubble that shaped investor sentiment during the second half of the decade. The astonishing surge in leverage in late 1999 peaked in March 2000, the same month that the S&P 500 hit its all-time daily high, although the highest monthly close for that year was five months later in August. A similar surge began in 2006, peaking in July 2007, three months before the market peak.

Debt hit a trough in February 2009, a month before the March market bottom. It then began another major cycle of increase. Margin debt hit an all-time high in February of this year.

The latest Margin Data

Unfortunately, the NYSE margin debt data is about a month old when it is published. Following its February peak, real margin declined sharply for two months, -3.9% in March -3.2% in April and was flat in May. It then jumped 5.7% in June, its largest gain in 17 months. June saw a 0.9% decline, but the August number has drifted higher, up 0.6%, and is now only is 1.9% below the February peak.

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The next chart shows the percentage growth of the two data series from the same 1995 starting date, again based on real (inflation-adjusted) data. I’ve added markers to show the precise monthly values and added callouts to show the month. Margin debt grew at a rate comparable to the market from 1995 to late summer of 2000 before soaring into the stratosphere. The two synchronized in their rate of contraction in early 2001. But with recovery after the Tech Crash, margin debt gradually returned to a growth rate closer to its former self in the second half of the 1990s rather than the more restrained real growth of the S&P 500. But by September of 2006, margin again went ballistic. It finally peaked in the summer of 2007, about three months before the market.

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After the market low of 2009, margin debt again went on a tear until the contraction in late spring of 2010. The summer doldrums promptly ended when Chairman Bernanke hinted of more quantitative easing in his August, 2010 Jackson Hole speech. The appetite for margin instantly returned, and the Fed periodically increased the easing until the beginning of tapering purchases now underway.

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