The Carry Trade

Did you know there is a trading system that can make money if price stayed exactly the same for long periods of time?

Well there is and it’s one the most popular ways of making money by many of the biggest and baddest money manager mamajamas in the financial universe!
It's called the Carry Trade.

A carry trade involves borrowing or selling a financial instrument with a low interest rate, then using it to purchase a financial instrument with a higher interest rate. While you are paying the low interest rate on the financial instrument you borrowed/sold, you are collecting higher interest on the financial instrument you purchased. Thus your profit is the money you collect from the interest rate differential. For example:

Let's say you go to a bank and borrow $10,000. Their lending fee is 1% of the $10,000 every year. With that borrowed money, you turn around and purchase a $10,000 bond that pays 5% a year.
What's your profit?

You got it! It's 4% a year! The difference between interest rates!
By now you're probably thinking, "That doesn't sound as exciting or profitable as catching swings in the market." However, when you apply it to the spot forex market, with its higher leverage and daily interest payments, sitting back and watching your account grow daily can get pretty sexy.

How Does the Carry Trade Work for Forex?

In the forex market, currencies are traded in pairs (for example, if you buy the USDCHF pair, you are actually buying the US dollar and selling Swiss Francs at the same time). Just like the example above, you pay interest on the currency position you sell, and collect interest on the currency position you buy.

What makes the carry trade special in the spot forex market is that interest payments happen every trading day based on your position. Technically, all positions are closed at the end of the day in the spot forex market - you just don't see it happen if you hold a position to the next day.
Brokers close and reopen your position, and then they debit/credit you the overnight interest rate difference between the two currencies. This is the cost of "carrying" (also known as “rolling over”) a position to the next day.

The amount of leverage available from forex brokers has made the carry trade very popular in the spot forex market. Forex trading is completely margin based, meaning you only have to put up a small amount of the position and you broker will put up the rest. Many brokers ask as little as 1% - 2% of a position - what a deal, eh?

Let's take a look at a generic example to show how awesome this can be.
For this example we'll take a look at Joe the newbie forex trader. It's Joe's birthday and his grandparents, being the sweet and generous people they are, give him $10,000. Schweeeet!
Now, instead of going out and blowing his birthday present on video games and posters of bubble gum pop stars, he decides to save it for a rainy day. Joe goes to the local bank to open up a savings account and the bank manager tells him, "Joe, your savings account will pay 1% a year on your account balance. Isn't that fantastic?" Joe pauses and thinks to himself, "At 1%, my $10,000 will earn me $100 in a year. Man, that sucks!"

Joe, being the smart guy he is, has been studying and knows of a better way to invest his money. So, Joe kindly responds to the bank manager, "Thank you sir, but I think I’ll invest my money somewhere else yo.”

Joe has been demo trading several systems, including the carry trade, for over a year, so he has a pretty good understanding of how forex trading works. He opens up a real account, deposits his $10,000 birthday gift, and puts his plan into action. Joe finds a currency pair whose interest rate differential is +5% a year and he purchases $100,000 worth of that pair. Since his broker only requires a 1% deposit of the position, they hold $1,000 in margin (100:1 leverage). So, Joe now controls $100,000 worth of a currency pair that is receiving 5% a year in interest.
What will happen to Joe’s account if he does nothing for a year?
Well, here are 3 possibilities.Let’s take a look at each one:
  1. Currency position loses value. The currency pair Joe buys drops like a rock in value. If the loss brings the account down to the amount set aside for margin, then the position is closed and all that’s left in the account is the margin - $1000.
  2. The pair ends up at the same rate at the end of the year. In this case, Joe did not gain or lose any value on his position, but he collected 5% interest on the $100,000. That means on interest alone, Joe made $5,000 off of his $10,000. That’s a 50% gain! Sweet!
  3. Currency position gains value. Joe’s pair shoots up like a rocket! So, not only does Joe collect $5000 in interest on his position, but he also takes home any gains! That would be a nice present to himself for his next birthday!
Because of 100:1 leverage, Joe has the potential to earn around 50% a year from his initial $10,000. Here is an example of a currency pair that offers a 5% differential rate based on current interest rates:

If you buy USD/JPY and held it for a year, you earn a "positive carry" of 5%.
Of course, if you sell USD/JPY, it works the opposite way:

If you sold USD/JPY and held it for a year, you would earn a "negative carry" of 5%.
Again, this is a generic example of how the carry trade works. Any questions on the concepts? No? I knew you could catch on quick! So, now it’s time to move on to the most important part of this lesson: Carry Trade Risk.

Carry Trade Risk
Being that you are a professional trader, you already know what the first question you should ask before entering a trade is, right?

“What is my risk?”

Correct! Before entering a trade you must always asses your max risk and whether or not it is acceptable according to your risk management rules.

In the previous example with Joe the Newbie Trader, his maximum risk would have been $9000. His position would be automatically closed out once his losses hit $9000.
Eh? That doesn’t sound very good, does it?

Remember, this is the worst possible scenario and Joe is a newbie, so he hasn’t fully appreciated the value of stop losses.

When doing a carry trade, you can still limit your losses like a regular directional trade. For instance, if Joe decided that he wanted to limit his risk to $1000, he could set a stop order to close his position at whatever the price level would be for that $1000 loss. He would still keep any interest payments he received while holding onto the position.

Carry Trade Criteria

It’s pretty simple to find a suitable pair to do a carry trade. Look for two things:
  1. Find a high interest differential.
  2. Find a pair that has been in an uptrend – where the currency you are long has been gaining value against the currency you are short.
Pretty simple, huh? Let’s take a real life example of the carry trade in action:

This is a weekly chart of GBP/JPY. Up until recently, the Bank of Japan has maintained a Zero Interest Rate Policy (current interest rate is 0.25% as of this writing - 11/01/2006). With the Bank of England touting one of the higher interest rates among the major currencies (currently at 4.75% as of this writing), many traders have flocked to this pair (one of the factors creating a nice little uptrend in the pair). From the end of 2000 to mid-2006, this pair moved from a price of 150.00 to 223.00 – that’s 7300 pips! If you couple that with interest payments from the interest rate differential of the two currencies, this pair has been a nice long term play for many investors and traders able to weather the volatile up and down movements of the currency market.
Of course, economic and political factors are changing the world daily. The interest rates and interest rate differentials between currencies may change as well, bringing popular carry trades (such as the Yen carry trade) out of favor with investors.

As you can see there are other ways to make money in the forex market without having to buy low and sell high, which can be pretty tough to do day after day.
If you catch the right pair (one with a positive interest rate differential) at the right time, then you’ll be sure to do well collecting money out of the market.
When properly applied, the carry trade can add significant income to your account, along with your directional trading strategies.