Declining Margin Debt – the bullish scenario

Margin debt, money borrowed to leverage the market, has for now topped and is in decline. Before the top in February it had reached levels far beyond the surges in 2000 and 2007, which could be an ominous indication of what is to come when and if margin debt continues to unravel.

See the chart below and the charts in the link.

Does the fact that it is coming down as major players try to ease out of their leveraged positions mean the market, measured by the S&P 500 stock index (SPX), has also topped? For the time being it would appear it has but history would say that’s not necessarily so.

MARGIN DEBT AND THE MARKET

From the link:

“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. At the 1997 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.”

Simply put, that would mean there is at least another new high coming in the new few months (the summer rally?) before any significant bearish behavior in the stocks.

The heads up is to say those highs, if they come, will be opportunities to sell, or at least tighten stops on long-term investments. A second look at the chart shows that the SPX, coming off highs in margin debt, declines close to 50%. Those were real bear markets. The next one could be worse. Regardless, no matter how low it goes, it is best to be avoided.

There are two possibilities it could be somewhat different this time. One, margin debt itself could surge to another new high along with a strong months-long market rally (see the jingle-jangle in 2015 on the chart); or two, the top is already in and the next leg down (given how astronomically high the margin debt is beyond 2000 and 2007) could be a dead bull dropping right out of the sky (they can not fly forever).

(click on the chart for larger view)