A Dummies Guide to Trading Interest Rate Swaps

This week marks the 10th Anniversary of my first ever blog. That also means it is a long time since I last traded an interest rate swap. To mark the occasion, I have documented the trading strategy that I used all those years ago. Enjoy!

Three Rules

This strategy follows three rules:

  1. You are acting as a “guardian of capital”, as such it is your responsibility to deploy that capital in an intrinsically responsible way.
  2. You have to act as if every single trade may be your last. Would you be happy to pass on the risk to the bank/client/colleague if you got hit by a bus?
  3. As a consequence of (1) and (2) you have a natural preference for “positive carry”.

What is Positive Carry?

Carry is how the value of a trade changes with time. In other words, how a trade rolls-down the curve to today.

Carry: If you do nothing, and if the market does nothing, will you make or lose money? Am I paying more interest or receiving more interest on my accruals?

What was my Trading Strategy?

I employed this strategy “in the real world” whilst trading the short-end of the EUR curve. I give you three bits of information from the market as inputs:

  • EURIBOR futures prices from the 1st to 12th contracts.
  • The price, and yield to Cheapest to Deliver, of the Schatz contract.
  • The implied price of a 2Y IMM interest rate swap (versus 3M EURIBOR).

How do you go about “trading”? This is what I did:

  • I need to know whether I want to be “long” or “short” each of the EURIBOR contracts. How do I know?
  • I use EURIBOR “microflies” as a Relative Value and Carry indicator. A microfly is a butterfly of consecutive IMM EURIBOR contracts (e.g. Sep24 vs Dec 24 vs Mar 25 is the first current microfly). The ‘fly has twice the weighting of the “belly” (middle) contract versus the wings.
  • I then look at the relative price of each microfly. In the above, the “8th” microfly has a price of +1.5bp. If I buy that fly and subsequently I do nothing ever again and the market never moves again, that would roll down in September to be the 7th microfly on the curve. The 7th microfly is currently at +3.0bp. This implies I would enjoy 1.5bp of positive carry over the next three months if nothing else happens. Whoopie – “free” money.
  • However, these microflies don’t move around too much. And if I just went out and bought each of the “cheap” EURIBOR contracts and sold each of the “rich” contracts I would pay away any potential upside in bid/offer. Booo.
  • We therefore need related contracts to leverage. And to take advantage of trading frictions. And take a bit of risk – this is not an arbitrage strategy.
  • EURIBOR contracts, Schatz futures and 2Y interest rate swaps all inhabit the same “space” – providing price discovery on market expectations for short-dated EUR interest rates. However, they are also commoditised, tradeable “things”. That means that each has an associated bid-offer and each has individual trading frictions associated with them.
  • For example, if a market participant crosses the bid-offer in the Schatz contract, that may result in emptying the e.g. bid side of the Schatz market, but there may still be plenty of bid side appetite in the EURIBOR market. Two things can then happen:
    • Schatz spreads can move. The yield on the Schatz can move higher relative to the swaps curve (perfectly normal, they are different “things” after all). In this case it would “tighten” the swap spread.
    • Or some of the bid-side appetite from the EURIBOR order books moves to the Schatz and it is just intraday “noise”.
  • Either way, the trading strategy uses this as a signal. The Schatz spread has moved as a result of the emptying of the bid-side, it may have moved as much as a full increment of the Schatz futures tick – say 0.25 or 0.5bp. That is not a true reflection of how it would move in Swaps space – the equivalent “tick” size would be more like 0.1 basis point. This outsize move in Schatz spreads gives us our “opportunity” to enter into the EURIBOR contracts we like.
  • On the above curve, our preferential contracts to BUY are the 9th and 11th contracts (those with the most positive carry from being long the belly of the microfly). The 11th is by far the most attractive.
  • On the above curve, our preferential contracts to SELL are the 3rd and 10th contracts (those with the most positive carry from being short). The 3rd is by far the most attractive.
  • At the point the Schatz contract has emptied out the bid-side, we typically enter the bid-side in the EURIBOR market for the 9th and 11th contracts. This is the opportunity to be filled on the bid-side for a long position that we want to establish.
  • (Please note, I do not try to buy the whole microfly – i.e. I am not bidding for the 8s9s10s fly, just the 9th contract. Trading frictions/bid-offers are too great to execute in 3 contracts every time).
  • If we get filled, we then need to enter the market again to either sell the Schatz contract against these long-positions or sell our preferred 3rd and 10th EURIBOR contracts.
  • What we do depends on:
    • Which EURIBOR contract did we manage to buy? If we bought the 11th contract, it is preferable to sell the 10th contract. This minimises our curve position compared to going long the 11th contract and short the 3rd. It also gets us even closer to “legging” into the desirable 10-11-12 microfly.
    • What have Schatz spreads done? Is the bid-side still emptying in the order book? If so, we may want to try and sell Schatz instead of EURIBORs to take a position in swap spreads.
  • Rinse and repeat as each side of the Schatz order book responds to the waves of intraday orders/demands.

Why Does It Work?

Fairly obviously, this is not a risk free strategy. You don’t follow these rules as a simple computer would. You tend to sit on your hands during ECB announcements, inflation figures and the like. You have to always consider rule 1 – you are a guardian of capital. But it gives you a good structure to act as a good guardian should.

It is designed to “replicate” flow trading, especially when you don’t have any clients.

It leaves you really wired into the market. When people say things like “the market is better bid today” you don’t get that colour unless you are watching order books/market activity all day.

It also allows you to interact with clients in a very meaningful way. “What do you think about 1Y1Y fwd in EUR swaps?” is a very difficult question to answer – unless you have the above thinking. The Red contracts (a proxy for 1Y1Y) all look “rich” right? But their microflies offer positive roll-down. So I can be a good market-maker here – happy to short them outright, but if I go long, I will happily buy whites and greens against it. It gives me a meaningful strategy to “lean into” across Futures, Swaps and Bonds.

You are always at risk when executing the trades – sitting on bids or offers. You have to be aware that much larger orders than yours are being passed through the order books with hidden size behind them. But those orders are your opportunity to get into positions that you like, with the explicit acknowledgement that you are taking that intraday risk. Trading is exactly that – being comfortable with the amount of risk you are trading.

Position sizing is also very important. I haven’t completed the analysis, but I would typically use the “Z score” of each fly to see where it was trading relative to recent history. I would use the size of the Z score as an indication of risk appetite.

Some positions will also naturally “trade long” e.g. running a reds versus whites strategy is mainly driven by price action in the reds contracts. So it is not always a DV01 neutral strategy that you are running. There are many ways to size the relative positions, as well as taking into account that a Schatz spread will also trade as an outright at times.

What Are the Risks?

You will note that due to Rule (2), there is no talk of stop-losses here! Obviously, it is unrealistic to just keep on building up positions into massive sizes of risk in each of my “cheap” and “expensive” contracts, and managing the outright/curve exposure with some bodged ratio of Schatz contracts!

This strategy is designed to be able to constantly make prices to clients – it never stands still. There is therefore always something in the book to lean against that makes client flow very valuable to you as a trader. If you have no clients coming to you, or if markets are so volatile that you cannot find periods of “calm” in which to execute on the bid or offer sides, then it’s difficult to trade a strategy like this.

However, as a market maker it is designed to always put you in positions that you like. That takes a lot of the stress out of the job.

In Summary

I celebrate the tenth anniversary of my last trade (!) by laying out my old trading strategy. I provide:

  • Three guiding principles for trading – protect capital, assume each trade is your last and always have positive carry.
  • I show how these are applied to the short end of the EUR curve, using measures of carry and “relative value”.
  • I show how this structure helps with flow trading and the ability to communicate with clients.
  • Trading was never about buying and selling for me – it was about facilitating risk management requirements from clients, and being able to communicate with them in a helpful way.

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