What is a Prime Brokerage?

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Contributor, Benzinga
September 18, 2023

Institutional investors usually require more robust investment services than traditional retail investors need. Prime brokers provide expanded tools for investors with significant capital to conduct financial activities. However, choosing prime brokerage services that best meet institutional needs requires careful consideration. Here’s a rundown on how prime brokerage works, who it serves and the key benefits and challenges.

How Does a Prime Brokerage Work?

Prime brokerage services help financial institutions like asset managers support trading activity through dealing with settlement and custody of assets. Essentially, prime brokers act as a central clearing broker that holds client assets. Clearing refers to making sure that trades settle the transfer of funds and securities between parties in a timely matter. It’s an important function following trade execution that delivers cash and assets between parties.

Prime brokers are generally part of larger financial institutions with expanded services, such as securities lending, cash management, custodial services, leveraged trade execution and other related activities. The service is offered by investment banks such as Morgan Stanley, JPMorgan and Goldman Sachs.

Who Are Prime Brokers For?

Prime brokers service investment managers like hedge funds, private equity firms, pension funds or even other commercial banks. In some cases, high-net-worth investors may also qualify for prime brokerage services, although clients must generally meet prime brokerage qualifications and minimum asset requirements. A client may have multiple prime brokers.

Most investment firms are not set up to settle and custody its own assets, requiring prime brokers to step in and work with the executing brokers to settle and transfer assets. Prime brokerage services also offer margin and financing options so that clients can borrow funds and increase their financial leverage. 

Key Features of Prime Brokerage Services

Prime brokerage services support the activities of other financial institutions. Clients who qualify for prime brokerage choose which services they need. Some of the key features of prime brokerage services include: 

Clearing and Settlement Services

Prime brokers offer trade clearing and settlement services. Clearing and settling trades requires the timely transfer of funds and shares between the parties involved. Trades may be executed with multiple execution brokers, but the settlement activity flows to the prime broker, who acts as the designated intermediary between buyers and sellers to ensure transactions settle correctly. Multiple prime brokers can also be involved during transaction clearing.

Securities Lending and Borrowing

Prime brokers offer securities lending, which allows clients to borrow stocks and bonds they don’t own to short. Typically, other clients of the prime broker hold the securities that the broker lends for a fee. Most clients agree to a securities lending arrangement of their assets when becoming a prime brokerage client. 


Prime brokers offer margin financing so that clients can borrow money and increase capital efficiency. Asset managers try to maximize returns on the assets managed and don’t usually take out traditional bank loans, so prime brokers are an important source of funding. The embedded financing fees are also a source of revenue for primer brokers. 

Collateral Management

Like most lenders, prime brokers require collateral when lending money or securities. A portion of the assets in custody with the prime broker will be used as collateral pledged against a margin loan. Prime brokers may offer customized collateral management solutions and cross-margining to give clients more efficient capital solutions.  

Trade Execution and Processing

Instead of dealing with multiple execution and prime brokers, clients can use their prime broker to trade securities. A firm’s prime brokerage and trade execution team may potentially offer more competitive rates for trades done with them. 

Risk Management and Reporting

An essential prime brokerage service involves risk management and performance analytics. Prime brokers have access to client holdings and can offer research and data to help identify cash and securities management risks. Performance analytic reports also help clients better monitor their investments. 

Benefits of Prime Brokerages

Most institutional clients require prime brokerages to operate. Here are a few of the major benefits:

  • Market access: Clients gain access to a wide variety of markets and instruments that prime brokers can settle trades in. 
  • Financing: Clients gain access to borrowed capital and money through a prime broker’s margin lending services. These enhanced liquidity and leverage options can help advance capital efficiency.
  • Institutional-level service: Prime brokers offer services tailored to institutional investors who manage significant capital, sometimes ranging in the billions of dollars. Institutional investors have different needs than retail investors in areas ranging from trade execution and compliance to risk management.
  • Efficient trade settlement: Without prime brokers, many institutional investors would need to create a larger back office to facilitate trade settlement. They may also not have the operational capability to custody and hold their own assets safely and securely. Prime brokers complete transactions between counterparties by efficiently managing the transfer of funds and assets.
  • Capital introductions: Asset managers generally look to increase the amount of capital they are managing. Prime brokers can connect managers with more capital by offering introductions to other institutional or high-net-worth investors.

Risk and Challenges of Prime Brokerages

As with any broker, working with a prime broker also involves risks. 

  • Counterparty risk: Although the assets held in custody with a prime broker should be held independently, prime brokers are still involved in the financial operations of a client. For example, if a prime broker offers financing to a client, that financing is subject to the risk that the prime broker cannot maintain its financial standing. Another type of counterparty risk comes from the transaction itself. Prime brokerages act as intermediaries, so an investor may be subject to counterparty risk if one party cannot fulfill its contractual or financial obligation. 
  • Operational challenges: Operational issues may arise if the prime broker lacks effective technology resources to handle trades, clearing and settlement services. 
  • Regulatory compliance: Prime brokers are subject to regulation, which could affect their ability to lend and use funds.

Selection Criteria for Prime Brokers

Selecting a prime brokerage firm is not a decision to take lightly because prime brokers offer a service central to business operations. Institutional investors should carefully consider what primary brokerage services are needed to perform their financial activities.

Financial stability and capital strength are critical considerations since prime brokers rely on large sums of money and assets to conduct their activities. A prime broker should also have the technological capacity to handle high-volume and complex transactions quickly and accurately.

Finally, reputation and quality can impact a client’s business. Major investors may decide whether to deploy capital based on the quality of the selected prime broker. 

Prime Brokerage vs. Traditional Brokerage

A traditional brokerage facilitates the buying and selling of investments, such as stocks and bonds. Individual investors and small companies typically use traditional or online brokers to maintain their investment accounts. Fees charged may range based on the services provided. If you use a traditional or online broker for nothing more than trades, you should expect to pay a fee each time you buy or sell securities. You will pay higher fees if your broker actively manages your investment portfolio.

A prime brokerage is an institution that offers a host of financial services, such as securities lending, trade and execution, clearing and settlement, cash management and risk analysis. Prime brokers usually work with hedge funds, large institutional investors and private equity firms.

The volume of transactions influences the fees paid to a prime broker. Prime brokers also charge interest and fees on the securities and money they lend. Specialized services, such as risk management and reporting, administrative support, cash management and custodial services, come with added fees.     

Prime Brokerage Services Offer Added Efficiency and Liquidity

Prime brokerage services can be vital services that help large financial institutions and investors facilitate trading activities. Institutional investors conduct their operations with added capital and operational efficiency through prime brokerage services. 

Frequently Asked Questions


How much do you need for a prime brokerage account?


A legal minimum of $500,000 in equity is generally needed to open a prime brokerage account; in practice, the minimums are often much higher.


What is margin in prime brokerage?


Margin in prime brokerage refers to the money lent to a client to trade assets. The margin represents the difference between the value of the investment purchased and the money borrowed.


What is the difference between a broker and a prime broker?


A broker facilitates the trading of securities for an investment account. A prime broker is a type of broker that provides expanded services to institutions, such as clearing and settlement services, securities lending, trade execution and cash management.

Anna Yen

About Anna Yen

Anna Yen, CFA is an investment writer with over two decades of professional finance and writing experience in roles within JPMorgan and UBS derivatives, asset management, crypto, and Family Money Map. She specializes in writing about investment topics ranging from traditional asset classes and derivatives to alternatives like cryptocurrency and real estate. Her work has been published on sites like Quicken and the crypto exchange Bybit.