Explained: Margin Trading For Cryptocurrency

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Margin trading with cryptocurrency allows users to borrow money against their current funds to trade cryptocurrency “on margin” on an exchange. In other words, users can leverage their existing cryptocurrency or dollars by borrowing funds to increase their buying power (generally paying interest on the amount borrowed, but not always).

For example, you put down $25 and leverage 4:1 to borrow $75 to buy $100 worth of Bitcoin. The only stipulation is that no matter what happens, you’ll have to pay back to $75 plus fees. In order to ensure they get the loaned amount back, an exchange will generally “call-in” your margin trade once you hit a price where you would start losing the borrowed money (as they will let you borrow money to trade, but they don’t want you losing that money). A margin call can be avoided by putting more money into the position.

A given exchange will have a range of different leveraging options (2:1, 3.33:1, 4:1, 100:1, etc.). Margin trading can be done short (where you bet on the price going down) or long (where you bet on the price going up). Further, it can be used to speculate, to hedge, or to avoid having to keep your full balance on an exchange.

How Margin Trading Cryptocurrency Works — Call Prices And Liquidation

This brings us to the next point. As noted above, you have to have enough funds to cover the bet you are taking. If you don’t have the funds, your position will automatically be closed, “liquidated” or “called in.” As, although the lender will let you use their money for a fee to margin trade, any money lost and any fees paid will come out of your funds. This is like the friend who let you borrow $50 in the Investopedia quote above; the lender is letting you borrow money, not have it to lose.

Specifically, if your balance falls below the “Maintenance Margin Requirement (MMR)” due to the price going the opposite way that you bet on, the exchange will either start liquidating your assets to get its money back or will simply request the funds from you. This is called a “margin call.” TIP: A margin call can be offset by contributing more funds to the order book you have the margin in (ex. BTC/USD). When you deposit more funds, you increase your margin ratio and improve your call price.

In other words, technical jargon aside, the concept here is: margin trading allows you to make bigger bets than you otherwise would at the cost of extra fees and extra risks. When you make a bet, you can use the lender’s money, but if the bet goes the wrong way, the funds come out of your pocket. You take all the risk.

That is the gist of margin trading; with that information, you know just enough to be dangerous.

Should You Use This Strategy?

We strongly suggest staying away from margin trading unless you have done research, are experienced, and are margin trading with a very specific purpose such as hedging. Losing money trading cryptocurrency is stressful enough without borrowing funds plus interest to create leveraged positions. That magnifies your stress level.

Of course, if you are less conservative than we are and want to trade on margin anyway, your next step should be reading all the documentation on margin trading for a given exchange before getting started. Understanding how to open and close margin positions, and making sure you understand margin ratios and calls, as well as brushing up on some margin trading strategy, is part of the next step. We’ll assume you are already well versed in technical indicators.

WARNING ON RISKS, RATIOS, AND BET SIZE: Margin trading cryptocurrency is one of the riskiest bets you can take. Cryptocurrency is risky, and margin trading is risky. Put them together on a highly leveraged moonshot, and you could find yourself owing a great deal of money rather quickly (especially with low volume high volatility altcoins). Unlike with regular trading, you can lose your entire initial investment margin trading. Further, the more you leverage, the quicker you can lose it.

For example, if you go long on a 4:1 margin and the position goes down about 25% from where you opened the position (or a little less since you’ll likely owe fees), the margin will be called in, and you’ll be left with nothing. Think of it this way; you put down $25, you borrowed $75, and thus with fees you only have a little under $25 to lose of the total $100 you are betting. If it goes up, then you can keep the position open as long as you like (as you aren’t risking the lender’s $75), but if it goes down your position will be liquidated based on the rate at which you are leveraged unless you put more funds in. Do an 8:1 leveraged position and it will be called in twice as fast at around 12.5%, do a 2:1 position and it will be called in at around 50%. Yes, you can always add to your position to prevent it from closing, but this is the exact sort of rabbit hole that loses people money. For an obligatory horror story and fair warning of the perks and perils of margin trading, see the Reddit post “How I Lost Nearly 200 BTC trading this past month.”

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