Investors pulled back from taking on more debt to buy stocks recently, signaling their reduced appetite for risk.
Margin debt, or the amount borrowed to purchase securities, dropped 2.45 percent in December, according to NYSE Euronext data released last week. The monthly decrease of $11.5 billion was also the largest since September last year. The NYSE figures represent the margin accounts of member firms.
Investors use margin to buy stocks on credit, and currently the Federal Reserve's Regulation T allows investors to borrow up to 50 percent of the price of securities purchased on margin. The Fed has not changed the margin requirements since 1974.
"Investors love going on margin in a rising market environment, but when the market declines, it can be extremely painful," said Paul Hickey, co-founder of Bespoke Investment Group. "Don't forget that if you go on margin you also have to pay interest on that loan, and some brokers charge pretty high rates, so you are already starting in the hole."