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Why Is The Yen Carry Trade Such A Big Deal Anyway?

Depending on who you ask, the yen carry trade is either alive and well, or an overused parlance in the investment community.

What is a carry trade anyway?

A carry trade is an investment strategy in which an investor borrows money at a low interest rate in order to invest in assets they speculate will generate a greater return. This strategy is very common in the foreign exchange market and works especially well if asset prices are stable and the currencies involved do not move against the investor. Adding to the fun, many investment houses will ramp up their returns by using additional leverage. The return can be quite impressive if the currency borrowed remains stable or continues to depreciate against the currency used to purchase the investment.

So how does the “yen carry trade” work? In a nutshell:

  • Large money managers and hedge funds borrow the yen at extremely low interest rates.
  • Yen are converted to U.S. dollars, which are invested in U.S. Treasuries at a much higher yield than the interest cost for the borrowed yen. That creates a “positive carry” because of the differential in interest rates.
  • The buying drives up U.S. bond prices and the money managers experience large profits, especially when done with additional leverage (this assumes the yen doesn’t rise in value).
  • Even more profits are made when (A) The dollar rises vs. the yen and (B) U.S. Treasuries rise in price

Whether one thinks this investment strategy is widely used or not, we can assure you that investors (especially U.S. based investors) should care which direction the yen moves. Why? Correlation. The yen has an impressively high negative correlation to U.S. equity prices (today, we’ll use the S&P500 in our examples). And for our statisticians out there, we know that correlation doesn’t mean causation, but it does have implication. For many years now, the correlation between the yen and S&P 500 has been -0.9 to -1.0. Meaning, whichever direction one goes, the other goes equally the other direction. So as investors, we should definitely care which direction the yen is heading. If it is dropping in value, that is a positive for the S&P 500 while an increase in yen value means trouble for the S&P 500.

As you might have guessed by now, studying the yen is a valuable exercise in determining what type of environment the S&P500 is in. So let’s take a look at it. Here is a 4 year chart of the yen (using ETF FXY as our proxy) along with the S&P 500 (top pane):

S&P 500 and Yen FXY

It quickly becomes obvious there is an important relationship here. The yen was breaking out from a 4 year downtrend at the same time as the S&P 500 was breaking down from a 4 year uptrend. Lucky coincidence? Maybe. Significantly important? Absolutely. Especially to those who are trying to make money in the markets.

When we move in for a closer look, we find the recent breakout and consolidation of the yen is targeting 86 if overhead supply near 82 is cleared and a return to 77 if the yen breaks below 80. If the former takes place, it is better than an educated guess that the S&P will continue to correct. If the latter takes place, the S&P will continue upward.

Yen (FXY) up close

At 360 Investment Research, we don’t care about being right. Rather, we care about being on the right side of the trade. In this case, we think the relationship between the yen and U.S. equity prices is an important one for helping us identify opportunities in the U.S. stock market. Let’s keep an eye on the yen and see what happens. We’ll follow-up on this release once the yen picks a direction.

Trade safe.

Disclaimer: Nothing in this article should be construed as investment advice or a solicitation to buy or sell a security. You invest based on your own decisions.

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