Forex Trading: How Leverage Really Works Against You

By: Hillel Fuld

The Forex market is an ideal trading arena for making serious profits. However, with its potential comes a danger just as great, if not greater. Forex, as a whole, is filled with misconceptions of what is right and wrong when it comes to trading. Many traders are misled by false information being distributed by uneducated “experts” and more often than not, by the Forex brokers themselves.

To just name a few areas in which Forex traders go wrong, there is the whole concept that Forex can provide you with an immediate profit of tremendous proportions. This is of course completely false, and can even be the complete opposite of the actual reality of Forex trading. The statistics are out there, depending on who you ask, anywhere between 80% and 90% of all trades in the Forex market end up with losses. So, in essence, the Forex market can provide you with immediate losses of tremendous proportions, and not profits.

Another common misconception in Forex is that you can jump in to the biggest market in the world without preparing yourself both mentally through comprehensive research of the market, physically, by making sure you have sufficient capital to trade Forex, and emotionally, by acquiring a deep knowledge of yourself and what kind of trader you are before risking your money.

It is true that there is lots of money to be made in Forex, but without spending sufficient time trading a demo and learning the industry, chances are you will not be seeing any of that money.

What is Leverage?  What is Margin?

Another common misconception that many traders have is that in order to reach the true potential of the Forex market, you need to trade with a high leverage. Before we go into this falsehood, and why it is so detrimental to your success as a trader, let's spend a few minutes understanding the basic concept of leverage and margin in the Forex market.

A few definitions of Leverage:

  • “The mechanical power or advantage gained through using a lever”
  • “The degree to which an investor or business is utilizing borrowed money.”
  • “The use of credit or borrowed funds to improve one's speculative capacity and increase the rate of return from an investment, as in buying securities on margin.”

In our own words, leverage is the ability to use whatever funds you have to increase the amount you are allowed to borrow from an external body. The capital that you bring to the table is referred to as margin.

To just clarify these two basic terms, when you buy a house and cannot afford to pay for it all up front, the bank checks your salary statements and sees that you are financially capable of paying monthly installments. The bank is therefore willing to allow you to leverage your salary and loan you the money you need for the house. Margin and leverage in the Forex market is very similar.

A Look at  High Leverage

When people (I am personally guilty of this too) discuss the advantages of Forex trading, one of the first things they mention is its high leverage. When trading Forex, you can open positions worth hundreds of thousands of dollars with a capital of a two hundred dollars or even less.

It is true that this draws many people to trade Forex, but if those people spent a few minutes really thinking about this concept and what they are essentially doing with their money, they might be a little more hesitant to trade with leverage of 100:1, 200:1, and even 400:1. Leverage is actually one of the biggest Forex dangers.

Someone once compared Forex leverage trading to driving a car. Anyone who has driven a car knows that when you drive at a speed of 60 KM/h or 200 KM/h, the turns of the steering wheel have a totally different affect. If you are driving at a low speed and accidentally turn the wheel slightly, the car will shift very slightly, and give you the opportunity to correct your mistake. If, however, you are driving at very high speeds and make that same mistake, the consequences will be deadly. The car will completely change directions and you will have much less time if any at all to fix the situation.

In Forex trading, leverage equals high speed. The higher the leverage, the faster you are driving. Therefore, even the smallest change in the market, can bring irreversible damage to your account. If however, you drive slowly and carefully, you might reach your destination a few minutes later, but at least you will get there alive. That is, if you trade with low or no leverage, you might make smaller profits, but no one trade will bring a complete closure of your trading account. You will always have the option to fix the situation with another trade.

Beware of Marketing Ploys

The problem many traders face when beginning to trade Forex is the marketing abilities of the Forex brokers. One of the first things you will encounter when viewing the standard broker's website is how incredibly high their leverage is. Did you ever thing why it is that if they are lending you the money in the same way the bank is, they do it with no Forex interest? Are they doing it out of the kindness of their hearts or do they know something about that money that you don't? Think about that.

While most brokers, through their marketing teams, try to lure traders into trading with as high a leverage as possible, it should be your goal, as a trader, to trade with as low a leverage as possible. Just like you would not borrow money from the bank to buy a house, unless you really had to, and you would try to put down as much of your own capital as possible, you should trade Forex with as little leverage as possible.

Market Volatility

One of the primary characteristics of the Forex market is its volatility. Leverage simply makes that already high volatility even higher, thereby increasing your risk by a lot. The important thing to remember about trading with no leverage is that the only way to lose all your money is if that currency loses all its value. Obviously, the dollar or the euro will always be worth something, so trading with no leverage is a pretty safe bet. 

Simple math dictates that if you trade 40 trades a month at a 20:1 leverage and a 5 pip spread, you are talking about a $4,000 expense before even losing one trade. When you apply that to a trader that loses 35% of his trades, which is a pretty good track record, he will end up losing 14% of his account. Using this optimistic scenario, after an extended period of time, a very good trader will break even, and most traders will end up losing, maybe not right away, but in the long run. The reason for this is that while the leverage is offering potential for gains, it is also slowly draining your trading account.

Besides playing a very negative role when it comes to your capital, leverage also causes you to lose focus and remove your eyes from the developments of the market and causes you to obsess and focus on the volatility and developments of your personal account. You end up analyzing your huge demo profits and coming to very incorrect conclusions about your strategy. If you were to trade with no leverage, you can go back and assess your accomplishments, and you can be sure they are based on your trading tactics, not on your leverage. Using high leverage can lead not only to a draining of your account, it can also rob you of your ability to trade sensibly and logically.

In conclusion, high Forex leverage has become a major buzzword in the world of Forex trading. The reason for this is not because it is what is best for the Forex trader. On the contrary, high leverage is being pushed down traders' throats by the marketing teams of the various brokers. The reason they are interested in you trading with high leverage is all the reasons we mentioned above, but mainly because your chances of coming out on top when trading with high leverage are very low, and at the end of the day, most brokers, at least the market makers amongst them are the ones trading against you, and are profiting from your losses.

3 User Reviews
  • Alberto

    could anyone of you give me an example of using 500:1 leverage and 100:1 leverage please. I am new to forex and I am interested in it. ferrialberto@hotmail.com thank you Alberto

    Alberto September, 2009
  • John Forman

    It's rather ironic that this article starts of with "Many traders are misled by false information being distributed by uneducated 'experts'..." because it's full of errors. The most glaring of them is the idea expressed that margin is like a mortgage downpayment and that one borrows from their broker. This flat out is not the case. Forex trading operates on the same principle as futures in that it is an agreement for future exchange and margin is put down as surety against potential adverse market movements. It's not like in the stock market where you put down X% and take out a margin loan for the remainder. That's not the way it works at all. Secondly, forex is not inherently more volatile than other markets. Actually, if you were to compare it to something like individual stocks you could find it to be much less volatile. It is the application of leverage which creates higher levels of account/position volatility. Then there's the statement "The statistics are out there, depending on who you ask, anywhere between 80% and 90% of all trades in the Forex market end up with losses." I'm going to guess that it's supposed to read "... of all traders", not "trades" because since there is a long and short for each trade it's impossible for there to be anything but a 50/50 split between losing and winning trades. As for the whole 40 trades and $4000 expense paragraph, it might have made sense if you included any kind of idea of trade size or account balance. You're throwing out numbers with no context. As for the main idea that high leverage is a killer, I agree that it CAN be. That said, however, leverage is only a tool. The real thing that gets people in trouble is simply taking too much risk. Yes, high leverage enables that, but you can take too much risk with low leverage too. Don't blame the tool for the trader misusing it. John Forman Senior Forex Analyst - Thomson Reuters IFR Markets Author - The Essentials of Trading

    John Forman September, 2009
  • oren rubin

    Amazing article...well said.

    oren rubin September, 2009

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