“Leverage” in general terms simply means borrowed funds. Leverage is widely used not just to acquire physical assets like real estate or automobiles, but also to trade financial assets such as equities and foreign exchange (“forex”).
Forex trading by retail investors has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years, thanks to the proliferation of online trading platforms and the availability of cheap credit. The use of leverage in trading is often likened to a double-edged sword, since it magnifies gains and losses. This is more so in the case of forex trading, where high degrees of leverage are the norm. The examples in the next section illustrate how leverage magnifies returns for both profitable and unprofitable trades.
Examples of Forex Leverage
Let’s assume that you are an investor based in the U.S. and have an account with an online forex broker. Your broker provides you the maximum leverage permissible in the U.S. on major currency pairs of 50:1, which means that for every dollar you put up, you can trade $50 of a major currency. You put up $5,000 as margin, which is the collateral or equity in your trading account. This implies that you can put on a maximum of $250,000 ($5,000 x 50) in currency trading positions initially. This amount will obviously fluctuate depending on the profits or losses that you generate from trading. (To keep things simple, we ignore commissions, interest and other charges in these examples.)
Example 1: Long USD / Short Euro. Trade amount = EUR 100,000
Assume you initiated the above trade when the exchange rate was EUR 1 = USD 1.3600 (EUR/USD = 1.36), as you are bearish on the European currency and expect it to decline in the near term.
Leverage: Your leverage in this trade is just over 27:1 (USD 136,000 / USD 5,000 = 27.2, to be exact).
Pip Value: Since the euro is quoted to four places after the decimal, each “pip” or basis point move in the euro is equal to 1 / 100th of 1% or 0.01% of the amount traded of the base currency. The value of each pip is expressed in USD, since this is the counter currency or quote currency. In this case, based on the currency amount traded of EUR 100,000, each pip is worth USD 10. (If the amount traded was EUR 1 million versus the USD, each pip would be worth USD 100.)
Stop-loss: As you are testing the waters with regard to forex trading, you set a tight stop-loss of 50 pips on your long USD / short EUR position. This means that if the stop-loss is triggered, your maximum loss is USD 500.
Profit / Loss: Fortunately, you have beginner’s luck and the euro falls to a level of EUR 1 = USD 1.3400 within a couple of days after you initiated the trade. You close out the position for a profit of 200 pips (1.3600 – 1.3400), which translates to USD 2,000 (200 pips x USD 10 per pip).
Forex Math: In conventional terms, you sold short EUR 100,000 and received USD 136,000 in your opening trade. When you closed the trade, you bought back the euros you had shorted at a cheaper rate of 1.3400, paying USD 134,000 for EUR 100,000. The difference of USD 2,000 represents your gross profit.
Effect of Leverage: By using leverage, you were able to generate a 40% return on your initial investment of USD 5,000. What if you had only traded the USD 5,000 without using any leverage? In that case, you would only have shorted the euro equivalent of USD 5,000 or EUR 3,676.47 (USD 5,000 / 1.3600). The significantly smaller amount of this transaction means that each pip is only worth USD 0.36764. Closing the short euro position at 1.3400 would have therefore resulted in a gross profit of USD 73.53 (200 pips x USD 0.36764 per pip). Using leverage thus magnified your returns by exactly 27.2 times (USD 2,000 / USD 73.53), or the amount of leverage used in the trade.
Example 2: Short USD / Long Japanese Yen. Trade amount = USD 200,000
The 40% gain on your first leveraged forex trade has made you eager to do some more trading. You turn your attention to the Japanese yen (JPY), which is trading at 85 to the USD (USD/JPY = 85). You expect the yen to strengthen versus the USD, so you initiate a short USD / long yen position in the amount of USD 200,000. The success of your first trade has made you willing to trade a larger amount, since you now have USD 7,000 as margin in your account. While this is substantially larger than your first trade, you take comfort from the fact that you are still well within the maximum amount you could trade (based on 50:1 leverage) of USD 350,000. [more]