What Is a Currency Carry Trade?

Carry is the most popular trade in the currency market, practiced by both the largest hedge funds and the smallest retail speculators. The carry trade is based on the fact that every currency in the world has an associated interest. These short-term interest rates are set by the central banks of these countries: the Federal Reserve in the United States, the Bank of Japan in Japan, and the Bank of England in the United Kingdom.

The concept of “carry” is straightforward. The trader goes long on the currency with a high-interest rate and finances that purchase with a currency that has a low-interest rate. For example, in 2005, one of the best pairings was the NZD/JPY cross. The New Zealand economy, spurred by huge commodity demand from China and a hot housing market, saw its rates rise to 7.25% and stay there while Japanese rates remained at 0%. A trader going long on the NZD/JPY could have harvested 725 basis points in yield alone. On a 10:1 leverage basis, the carry trade in NZD/JPY could have produced a 72.5% annual return from interest rate differentials without any contribution from capital appreciation. This example illustrates why the carry trade is so popular.

Before rushing out in pursuit of the next high-yield pair, however, be advised that when the carry trade is unwound, the declines can be rapid and severe. This process is known as the currency carry trade liquidation and occurs when the majority of speculators decide that the carry trade may not have future potential.

For every trader seeking to exit their position at once, bids disappear, and the profits from interest rate differentials are not nearly enough to offset capital losses. Anticipation is the key to success: the best time to position the carry is at the beginning of the rate-tightening cycle allowing the trader to ride the move as interest rate differentials increase.

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