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Fund Managers Report a Spike in Margin Loans to Buy Real Estate

“More and more people are borrowing against their brokerage accounts to buy condos and expand their businesses. That’s not reassuring.

Close-up of roulette wheelFORTUNE — Like the recent bull market? How about taking a home renovation to go with it? That apparently is what some investors have been doing with their stock gains.

The recent run-up in the market, financial advisers say, has led to a resurgence of the type of loan not seen since the end of the housing boom — cash out financing. But this time, though, people aren’t tapping their inflated house for money. These days stock portfolios appear to be the well of choice.

Financial planners say in recent months clients have taken out so-called margin loans to buy real estate, fund small business acquisitions, or to provide gap financing before a traditional loan could be secured from a bank.

“No one wants to be out of the market for 90 days,” says Mark Brown, a financial planner for Brown Tedstrom in Denver. “People just don’t want to sell right now.”

Borrowing against brokerage accounts hit an all-time high earlier this year, according to data from FINRA, and has continued to go higher. Margin loans outstanding totaled nearly $409 billion at the end of April. That compares to $381 billion back in July 2007, the last time stock-market-fueled lending peaked.

Debt is often seen in bubbles, and loose lending was a key part of what led to the housing bust. So the recent rise in stock market borrowing has some people nervous, especially at a time when the market is already making new highs, and seemingly headed straight up. Despite being down on Wednesday, the market has not suffered a three-day string of losses all year, which is not typical. Nonetheless, according to a recent Wall Street Journal article, investors should be less worried about all this margin debt because people aren’t using the borrowed funds to buy more stocks, they are using it as a cheap source of fast cash…..”

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