Tag: Trading

What is Basis Trading and How Does it Affect the Treasury Bond Market?

Basis trading is a financial trading strategy regarding the purchase of a particular financial instrument or security (in this case Treasury Bonds) or commodity, and the sale of its related derivative. In this example, it is the purchase of a Treasury Bond and the sale of its related futures contract. In the treasury market, the trade is centred on the price differential between treasury bonds and their associated futures contracts.

From time to time, due to heavy purchasing of Treasury bond futures by insurance companies, institutional investors and pension funds*, the bond futures price rises above the price of the underlying bond. Once this price differential is in place hedge funds take advantage of this price differential and will buy Treasury bonds and at the same time sell corresponding Treasury futures. The upshot of this trade is that by selling the higher priced bonds in one market and buying the cheaper priced bonds in another market, the hedge funds can profit from the price differential. 

*Purchasing Treasury Bond Futures – Asset managers instead of buying actual Treasury bonds quite often prefer to buy futures because there is less upfront cash to pay. 

However, the profits from these trades are very small, and therefore heavy borrowing is required in order to make them more lucrative. Sometimes when there are unexpected episodes or events, this can quite often lead to market volatility leading to potential tragic consequences for the trade leaving the trader no option but to straight away unload all their holdings. This form of arbitrage*, as mentioned previously, requires heavy borrowing, and hedge funds usually borrow from the Repo Market**. It is normal for hedge funds to offer their Treasury bonds as collateral, as the normal practice is to roll-over these loans on a daily basis. Experts advise that these trades can be quite risky due to the amount of leverage involved (on average USD50 for every USD1 invested so 50 times leverage), plus a big reliance on short-term borrowings. 

*Arbitrage – the simultaneous buying and selling of currencies, commodities or securities in different markets or in derivative forms in order to take advantage of the differing prices of the same asset.

**Repo (Repurchase Agreement) Market – In this market money market funds, banks and others lend short-term capital against government securities, in this case US Treasury Bonds. Basically, in this transaction a borrower temporarily lends a security to a lender for cash with an agreement to buy it back in the future at a predetermined price. Ownership of the security does not change hands in a repo transaction.

When the Treasuries market experiences volatility, it can increase the cost of the trade thereby negating profitability, so hedge funds must very quickly unwind their trades in order to repay their loans thereby increasing volatility in an already volatile market.  Such fluctuations can see liquidity drying up and a decrease in the availability of buyers. In such instances* the Treasuries market can literally seize up, and with Treasury bonds being so fundamental to the credit market (and they are risk-free), the US Federal Reserve has had to intervene when the normal functioning of the market has become impaired. 

*Onset of the CoronaVirus – Back in 2020 when the Covid-19 appeared the huge volatility in the markets prompted margin calls in Treasury bond futures, amplifying funding problems in the repo market. Simultaneously, Treasury bond holdings were being dumped by foreign central banks in order to prop their own currencies with US Dollars. This prompted cash bonds to underperform their futures counterparts which is the opposite of the conditions needed for the basis trade to make a profit. It was never fully understood how much basis trading contributed to the turmoil in the market, but the rapid unwinding of positions by hedge funds certainly increased volatility. The upshot was the Federal Reserve promised to buy trillions of dollars of Treasury Bonds to keep markets running smoothly whilst providing the repo market with emergency funding. 

Basis trading subsided after the 2020 debacle but returned in early 2023 due the Federal Reserve monetary tightening policies by raising interest rates a record eleven times in eighteen months, which pushed up yields on 10 year Treasury bonds to circa 5%. On the demand side, this yield (highest since 2007) once again attracted large institutional buyers to buy futures, and on the supply side the Federal Reserve has increased sales of bonds to fund the US Government deficits, which has put downward price pressure on cash bonds. Therefore there is now a sufficient gap between the price of cash bonds and futures to have basis traders up and running again.

Financial watchdogs and authorities are unhappy over these trades, specifically because they are highly leveraged, and the fact that they are direct from one party to another. This means regulation is difficult, plus hedge funds themselves have much less regulation than banks. To this end, the Bank for International Settlements (BIS), the Bank of England and the Federal Reserve have called for closer monitoring of basis trades. Indeed the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) finalised a rule in May of this year (starting June 2024)requiring all private funds to report sudden large losses, margin increases and any other significant changes.