We are all painfully aware of the recent volatility in the markets, which has not gone unnoticed by the SEC. On March 14, 2022, the Staff of the Division of Trading and Markets stated that “broker-dealers should collect margin from counterparties to the fullest extent possible in accordance with any applicable regulatory and contractual requirements.” We shall see whether Wall Street acts upon the SEC’s guidance, and whether investors are caught flat-footed by stepped-up maintenance margin requirements.
Regulatory and Contractual Requirements
The regulatory requirements for margin are set forth in FINRA Rule 4210. Although the rule is lengthy, and incorporates other rules including Federal Reserve Board Regulation T, the essence of the rule allows a broker-dealer to lend a customer up to 50% of the total purchase price of an eligible stock. A margin call may be issued if the margin account falls beneath the maintenance margin requirements (generally 25% of the current market value of the securities in the account) or if the margin account falls below the firm’s “house” maintenance margin requirements (which can be substantially higher than 25%). Brokerage firms can, and often do, upwardly adjust “house” maintenance margin requirements if the firm has risk concerns relating to outstanding margin loans. Most margin account agreements specifically permit broker-dealers to increase maintenance margin requirements at the sole discretion of the firm. In light of the SEC’s recent guidance, it seems likely that broker-dealers will act upon its contractual rights and demand enlarged collateral from customers to protect its margin loans.