Forex Leverage: A Double-Edged Sword

One of the reasons why so many people are attracted to trading forex compared to other financial instruments is that with forex, you can usually get much higher leverage than you would with stocks. While many traders have heard of the word leverage, few have a clue about what leverage is, how leverage works, and how leverage can directly impact their bottom line

What is leverage?
Leverage involves borrowing a certain amount of the money needed to invest in something. In the case of forex, that money is usually borrowed from a broker. Forex trading does offer high leverage in the sense that for an initial margin requirement, a trader can build up - and control - a huge amount of money.

To calculate margin-based leverage, divide the total transaction value by the amount of margin you are required to put up.

Margin-Based Leverage =
Total Value of Transaction
Margin Required

For example, if you are required to deposit 1% of the total transaction value as margin and you intend to trade one standard lot of USD/CHF which is equivalent to US$100,000, the margin required would be US$1,000. Thus, your margin-based leverage will be 100:1 (100,000/1,000). For a margin requirement of just 0.25%, the margin-based leverage will be 400:1, using the same formula.

Margin-Based Leverage Expressed as Ratio

Margin Required of Total Transaction Value









However, margin-based leverage does not necessarily affect one's risks. Whether a trader is required to put up 1% or 2% of the transaction value as margin may not influence his or her profits or losses. This is because investor can always attribute more than the required margin for any position. What you need to look at is the real leverage, not margin-based leverage.

To calculate the real leverage you are currently using, simply divide the total face value of your open positions by your trading capital.

Real Leverage =
Total Value of Transaction
Total Trading Capital

For example, if you have $10,000 in your account, and you open a $100,000 position (which is equivalent to one standard lot), you will be trading with a 10 times leverage on your account (100,000/10,000). If you trade two standard lots, which is worth $200,000 in face value with $10,000 in your account, then your leverage on the account is 20 times (200,000/10,000).

This also means that the margin-based leverage is equal to the maximum real leverage a trader can use. And since most traders do not use their entire accounts as margin for each of their trades, their real leverage tends to differ from their margin-based leverage.

Leverage in Forex Trading
In trading, we monitor the currency movements in pips, which is the smallest change in currency price, and that could be in the second or fourth decimal place of a price, depending on the currency pair. However, these movements are really just fractions of a cent. For example, when a currency pair like the GBP/USD moves 100 pips from 1.9500 to 1.9600, that is just a $0.01 move of the exchange rate.

This is why currency transactions must be carried out in big amounts, allowing these minute price movements to be translated into decent profits when magnified through the use of leverage. When you deal with a large amount like $100,000, small changes in the price of the currency can result in significant profits or losses.

When trading forex, you are given the freedom and the flexibility to select your real leverage amount based on your trading style, personality and money management preferences.

Risk of Excessive Real Leverage
Real leverage has the potential to enlarge your profits or losses by the same magnitude. The greater the amount of leverage on capital you apply, the higher the risk that you will assume. Note that this risk is not necessarily related to margin-based leverage although it can influence if a trader is not careful.

Let's illustrate this point with an example (See Figure 1).

Both Trader A and Trader B have a trading capital of US$10,000, and they trade with a broker that requires a 1% margin deposit. After doing some analysis, both of them agree that USD/JPY is hitting a top and should fall in value. Therefore, both of them short the USD/JPY at 120.

Trader A chooses to apply 50 times real leverage on this trade by shorting US$500,000 worth of USD/JPY (50 x $10,000) based on his $10,000 trading capital. Because USD/JPY stands at 120, one pip of USD/JPY for one standard lot is worth approximately US$8.30, so one pip of USD/JPY for five standard lots is worth approximately US$41.50. If USD/JPY rises to 121, Trader A will lose 100 pips on this trade, which is equivalent to a loss of US$4,150. This single loss will represent a whopping 41.5% of his total trading capital.

Trader B is a more careful trader and decides to apply five times real leverage on this trade by shorting US$50,000 worth of USD/JPY (5 x $10,000) based on his $10,000 trading capital. That $50,000 worth of USD/JPY equals to just one-half of 1 standard lot. If USD/JPY rises to 121, Trader B will lose 100 pips on this trade, which is equivalent to a loss of $415. This single loss represents 4.15% of his total trading capital.

Refer to the chart below to see how the trading accounts of these two traders compare after the 100-pip loss.

-Trader ATrader B
Trading Capital$10,000$10,000
Real Leverage Used50 times5 times
Total Value of Transaction$500,000$50,000
In the Case of a 100-Pip Loss-$4,150-$415
% Loss of Trading Capital41.5%4.15%
% of Trading Capital Remaining58.5%95.8%
Figure 1: All figures in U.S. dollars

Excessive Leverage Can Kill

With a smaller amount of real leverage applied on each trade, you can afford to give your trade more breathing space by setting a wider but reasonable stop and avoiding risking too much of your money. A highly leveraged trade can quickly deplete your trading account if it goes against you as you will rack up greater losses due to bigger lot sizes. Keep in mind that leverage is totally flexible and customizable to each trader's needs. Having an aim of trading profitably is not about making your millions by the end of this month or this year.

by Grace Cheng