Payment for liquidity – anatomy of a margin call

When you go to a bank and ask for their rates on 1-year GICs, you usually get two responses – the rate for the cashable GIC and the rate for a locked-in GIC. You will receive a larger rate if you are willing to commit your money for a longer time period, at the penalty of having no interest if you want early access to your cash. The rate differences can be considered a payment for liquidity.

In the stock markets today, people are paying heavily for liquidity.

As an example, one of my top holdings, Rogers Sugar (TSX: RSI), tanked in trading because somebody needed liquidity, fast:

At 9:56 (eastern), the bid/ask was already being pushed down. It was at bid/ask 4.90/4.92 and then somebody wanted to get rid of about 100,000 shares quickly. In the span of five seconds, they took down the asking price 44 cents to $4.50 and then in the course of ten seconds there were 58,190 shares traded between 4.46 and 4.90. The bulk of the trade was done at the price of $4.50 where 35,400 shares changed hands.

This is the type of trading activity that occurs when somebody is undergoing a margin liquidation. They are paying a 40 cent per share premium for the privilege of wanting cash right now.

Generally speaking if you were on the opposite ends of these types of liqudiations you will receive a very, very good price. However, the window of opportunity you actually have to react to such liquidations is very, very tiny – you had about 1 second to hit somebody’s ask at 4.50 before somebody else picked it up. This is why computer trading is so prevalent in the marketplace – they are out there looking for such prospects.

When the market needs liquidity it does not matter what the fair value of the underlying security is – it will go at whatever price others want to pay for it. This can be much lower than the existing market value or what would be a rational valuation for the underlying company.