Markets Relax Merrily on a Powerful Time Bomb

by Wolf Richter, Wolf Street:

Magnitude unknown but huge. Brokerages push it to new heights.

Stock and bond market leverage is everywhere. Some of it is transparent, such as NYSE margin debt which was $539 billion as of the June report. But the hottest form of stock and bond market leverage is opaque, offered by financial firms that usually don’t disclose the totals: securities-based loans (SBLs) — or “shadow margin” because no one knows how much of it there is. But it’s a lot. And it’s booming.

These loans can be used for anything – pay for tuition, fix up that kitchen, or fund a vacation. The money is spent, the loan remains. When security prices fall, the problems begin.

Finra, the regulator for brokerages, doesn’t track this shadow margin, nor does the SEC. Both, however, have been warning about the risks. No one knows the overall amount of this shadow margin, but some details have been reported:

Morgan Stanley had $36 billion of these loans on its balance sheet as of the end of 2016, up 26% from 2016, and more than twice the amount in 2013. Bank of America Merrill Lynch had $40 billion in SBLs on the balance sheet at the end of 2016, up 140% from 2010; UBS and Wells Fargo “also have made billions in such loans, people familiar with those banks” told the Wall Street Journal. Raymond James, Stifel Nicolaus… they’re all doing it. Fidelity used to fund its own SBLs for its clients, but three years ago partnered with US Bancorp. Even the little ones are trying to get their slice of the pie: In April, robo-advisory startup Wealthfront, with less than $6 billion, announced that it would offer SBLs to its clients.

And now Goldman Sachs, which has been offering SBLs to its 12,000 super-wealthy clients through its Private Banking unit — accounting “for more than half of the unit’s $29 billion in loans outstanding,” according to the Wall Street Journal — announced on Thursday that this wasn’t enough and that it is partnering with Fidelity Investments to spread these loans far and wide.

This effort to lever up investors’ portfolios occurs after an eight-year bull run, with stock indices hopping from one all-time high to the next even as the economy has been growing at a dreadfully slow pace and even as corporate earnings have mostly gone nowhere for years.

Since July 2012, the trailing 12-month “adjusted” earnings-per-share of the companies in the S&P 500 rose just 12% in total. Over the same period, the S&P 500 Index itself soared 80%.

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