scorecardA red flag from the meme-stock era is nowhere to be found with markets at record highs. That's great news for continued gains ahead.
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A red flag from the meme-stock era is nowhere to be found with markets at record highs. That's great news for continued gains ahead.

Matthew Fox   

A red flag from the meme-stock era is nowhere to be found with markets at record highs. That's great news for continued gains ahead.
Stock Market3 min read
  • A persistent decline in margin debt suggests that a red flag from the meme-stock mania of 2021 is currently non-existent.
  • That's good news for investors, as it suggests there's more upside ahead even as the stock market trades at record highs.
  • "FINRA margin debt certainly paints the picture that we aren't in a speculative bubble currently," equity strategist Rob Swanke told Business Insider.

For all the talk that the stock market is in an AI-fueled bubble that rivals the 2000 dot-com bubble, one key indicator sure isn't acting like it.

FINRA margin debt, which measures the amount of money investors borrow from their broker to buy stocks, is still down 25% from its $935 billion peak in 2021 to $701 billion.

The level of outstanding margin debt tends to be a real-time measure of investor sentiment, as investors utilize more margin as they get more bullish and try to chase returns in the stock market.

The meme-stock trading boom that was unleashed on the stock market during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic was a clear warning sign to investors that the market was approaching a peak. By the middle of 2022, margin debt crashed 35% thanks to a brutal bear market.

It still hasn't recovered.

"Margin debt is indeed well off the previous peak, which is one way to say we aren't seeing the major excesses you tend to see at peaks," Ryan Detrick, chief market strategist at Carson Group, told Business Insider on Friday. The current level of margin debt gives Detrick confidence that the stock market isn't nearing an imminent peak.

"With stocks at all-time-highs, we are seeing some excitement in sentiment polls, which is normal, but by no means do we think we are in danger of a big bubble or over the top blow off like many claim," Detrick said.

The fact that outstanding margin debt has failed to stage a significant recovery from its 2022 meltdown, even as the S&P 500, Nasdaq 100, and Dow Jones Industrial Average hit record highs after record highs, suggests to some market strategists that there could be further upside ahead.

"Margin debt is well below the 2021 peak, which indicates that speculators are nowhere near their maximum exposure," chief technical strategist Larry Tentarelli of Blue Chip Daily Trend Report told Business Insider. That means there could still be plenty of buying pressure for stocks, especially considering that their is $6 trillion sitting in money market funds.

"There is near record cash on the sidelines, which we believe will start to work its way into the stock market," Tentarelli said.

Harris Financial Group managing partner Jamie Cox echoed those same sentiments, telling Business Insider that gap between today's margin debt levels and the prior peak ultimately represent buying power for retail investors. And that buying power could heat up as the Federal Reserve cuts interest rates.

"Current margin rates are high enough to stave off free speculation, but remain reasonable enough not to force liquidations, which is a good thing," Cox said. "Looking forward, when the Federal Reserve begins to taper its quantitative tightening program and reduce the Federal Funds rate, I would expect margin debt to increase, thus fueling more buying in equities."

So for all of the bearish strategists that think the stock market has entered a new tech-fueled bubble that will only end in disaster, it might pay to monitor the level of margin debt. Because to many, that's a clear signal that the stock market has yet to enter bubble territory, meaning that there is likely more upside ahead.

"FINRA margin debt certainly paints the picture that we aren't in a speculative bubble currently, especially when you look historically at the times prior to 2000 and 2008 when there was a significant run up in margin debt," Rob Swanke, senior equity strategist at Commonwealth Financial Network told Business Insider.




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