Futures Margin Calls: Before You Lever Up, Know the Initial vs. Maintenance Margin Requirements

Futures Margin Calls: Before You Lever Up, Know the Initial vs. Maintenance Margin Requirements

Key Takeaways

    Margin on futures can help establish a relatively large position, but it also adds certain risks

    A certain amount of money, the maintenance margin, must always be maintained on deposit with a futures broker

    When losses exceed maintenance margin, it may trigger a “margin call” at any time during the trading day

Levers and leverage, at the most fundamental level, are about doing more with less, or punching above your weight. Such principles apply to the futures market in the form of margin trading, which offers the potential to establish a position in a commodity—such as crude oil or corn—or some other asset with a relatively small amount of money. But with that leverage comes risks, including the margin call.

Futures margin allows you to pay less than the full “notional” value of a trade, potentially offering more efficient use of capital or opportunities to hedge against adverse market swings. Futures margin is leverage that can enhance returns; however, it can also quickly exacerbate losses with small price movements, which is why it’s important to apply proper risk management.

There are a few different forms of margin, as well as important related concepts and terms: initial margin, maintenance margin, and the mechanics of a margin call, including the “intraday” margin call (more on that later). Here’s a quick rundown.

How does futures margin differ from margin on stocks?

Margin trading in the equity market means borrowing money from a broker to purchase stock—effectively, a loan from the brokerage firm. In the futures market, an investor or trader puts down a good-faith deposit called the initial margin requirement or “performance bond,” as some exchanges call it. This ensures each party (buyer and seller) can meet their obligations as spelled out in the futures contract.

Initial margin requirements vary by futures product and are typically a small percentage—2% to 12%—of the notional value of the contract (the cash equivalent value to owning the asset, or the total value of the contract). In equity margin trading, by contrast, an investor can borrow only up to 50% of the purchase price or total value of the trade (based on the Federal Reserve’s Regulation T, or “Reg T,” rule).

What is initial margin vs. maintenance margin requirements in futures?

A certain amount of money must always be maintained on deposit with a futures broker. Traders establishing a new futures position must put up the initial margin requirement; however, once the position is established, the trader is held to the maintenance margin requirement. If the equity in a trader’s account drops below the maintenance margin requirement due to adverse price movement, the broker will issue a “margin call” to restore the customer’s equity to the initial margin requirement.

An individual or retail investor who wants to trade futures must typically open an account with a futures commission merchant (FCM) and post the initial margin requirement, which in turn is held at the exchange’s clearinghouse. Different futures exchanges specify initial margin and maintenance margin levels for each futures contract, but FCMs may require investors to post margin at higher levels than those specified by the exchange.

How futures margin works: Crude oil example

Futures can be used to gain exposure to a specific asset class and speculate on price movement of individual futures products, such as gold, crude oil, or equity benchmarks like the S&P 500® index (SPX). For example, CME Group’s “Micro” futures contracts, based on oil, the SPX, or other popular markets, are among the potential avenues for individuals who want to use less margin (although the same inherent risks apply).

Micro WTI Crude Oil (/MCL) futures are one-tenth the size of CME’s standard West Texas Intermediate (WTI) Crude Oil (/CL) contract and represent 100 barrels of WTI-grade crude, the U.S. benchmark. This means the Micro contract’s margin requirement is also one-tenth of its larger counterpart. As of August 2023, the maintenance margin requirement for one standard /CL futures contract was $5,800, and the margin requirement for a /MCL contract was $580 (a little more than 7% of the contract’s notional value).

Let’s look at an example. Say you expect crude oil prices to move higher, so you buy five /MCL contracts at $75 per barrel, putting up at least $2,900 in initial margin (good faith deposit) to establish a position in a futures contract with a notional value of $37,500. If oil rises to $76, the notional value of the futures position would gain $500 ($1 x 100 barrels x 5 contracts) to $38,000. If you sold those five contracts at $76, you’d pocket a gain of $500.

But if the price of oil falls, this same leverage would work against you.

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What happens in a futures margin call?

Margin calls are triggered when the value of an account drops below the maintenance level, prompting the broker or FCM to require additional money to be deposited.

Using the aforementioned oil futures example, a drop in crude prices to, say, $74, would reduce the five contracts’ notional value by $500. If your futures account balance fell below the $2,900 maintenance margin, your broker would require you to immediately deposit additional funds to bring your account back up to the initial margin requirement.

Futures trading is not for everyone, and as with stocks, margin can be a double-edged sword. Because margin requirements for futures contracts involve leverage, profits and losses can be magnified, so it’s possible to lose more than the initial investment to open a futures position. If a margin call is not met within a short time frame—often within a single business day—the position may be liquidated or closed.

What is an “intraday” margin call?

There’s a perception that margin calls always happen after the trading day ends and markets are closed, but that’s not always the case. Under certain, often extreme, circumstances, a broker may require more funds from its clients while markets are still open—an intraday margin call. 

For TD Ameritrade clients, intraday margin calls may apply to certain day traders. Though clients are responsible for monitoring their accounts and being aware of any extreme swings or low equity situations, TD Ameritrade may reach out to make them aware of these circumstances and request additional funds if needed.

Finding initial margin on thinkorswim®

Initial margin requirements are easily accessible on the thinkorswim platform. To see initial margin, tick size, and other contract specs, from the Trade tab, insert a symbol in the symbol box, open the drop-down menu, and then select Futures (see figure 1). In this example, an E-mini S&P 500 (/ES) futures contract, as of July 2023, has an initial margin requirement of $12,320. Be mindful that futures contract margin requirements vary for each product, and they can change at any time based on market conditions.

Futures Margin Calls: Before You Lever Up, Know the Initial vs. Maintenance Margin Requirements

FIGURE 1: FUTURES MARGIN, CONTRACT SPECS. Qualified account owners can log in to the thinkorswim platform and see initial margin requirements and other contract specs. Chart source: thinkorswim platform. For illustrative purposes only. Past performance does not guarantee future results.

Qualifying TD Ameritrade account owners can apply online to trade futures products. To learn more about the application process or about futures in general, please visit www.tdameritrade.com/futures.

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