Flipping through the latest issue of SmartMoney magazine, it came as no surprise to see a full-page advertisement from Fidelity. But what caught my eye was the subject matter. Margin loans.
And this was no soft-sell pitch with smiling 50-somethings sipping Chardonnay on their deck. It was all business, showing how Fidelity's margin-lending rates fared against those of its major competitors. The hard-hitting approach isn't carried through to its website though, which opts not to show any comparative data.
E*Trade, one of the best financial marketers, is said to be offering teaser rates as low as 3.99% to encourage investment clients to transfer higher-rate debt to their margin accounts (WSJ, 4/20/06). However, its published rates vary from 6.74% to 9.74%. The retail banking sweet spot, loans of $50,000 to $250,000, are priced at 8.74%.
Fidelity doesn't go quite that low. Rates vary considerably depending on the balance, but under $500,000, borrowers pay 8.5% to 10.5%. Only those borrowing more than $500,000 pay an ultra-low rate of 5.5% (see inset for current rates).
What's going on here? Brokerage firms are finding that customers are willing to borrow against their securities to finance all types of non-investment purchases. UBS AG's wealth management unit says that 75% of its $10 billion in margin-loan outstanding has been used to purchase things other than securities.
Expect more competition from brokerage firms as empty nesters and younger retirees finance portions of their lifestyles with loans against their investments. Deferring tax liability on portfolio gains is a big part of the decision to borrow. But there's also the psychological aversion to seeing investment balances decline.
Financial institution loan officers should be well versed on the risks of margin loans, and instead offer home-equity loans and cash-out refinances with similar rates and no risk of a potentially disastrous margin call.