NYSE margin debt fell again during the month of February. After the selloff in stocks that kicked off 2016, this should come as no surprise. Investors are usually forced to reduce leveraged bets during these sorts of episodes in the stock market. In fact, this forced selling can actually exacerbate the volatility. And because margin debt is only now beginning to come down from record highs, surpassing those seen at the 2000 and 2007 peak, this should be of concern to most equity investors.
To fully appreciate this risk, I prefer to look at margin debt relative to overall economic activity. When leveraged financial speculation becomes large relative to the economy, it’s usually a sign investors have become far too greedy. As Warren Buffett would say, this is usually a good time to become more fearful, or conservative towards the stock market.
Not only did margin debt recently hit nominal record-highs, it hit new record-highs in relation to GDP, as well. In other words, over the past s