“It is never different this time…” Weekend thoughts from Credit Suisse

4 mins. to read

So many traders think the key to investment riches lies in buying at the bottom or selling at the top.

Such a fine but misguided notion.

The cold reality is that unless one has (illegal) inside information, you will only transact at these locations by pure happenstance. The best managers can enter a position in a zip code near the bottom or top, but not precisely. This is why the most successful investors recognize that sizing is the critical concept. A position that is too small will not justify the effort involved in discovering a valuable idea. Even worse, a position that is too large may force a “stop out” before a brilliant theme reaches its denouement. This Commentary reveals a way to gain exposure to a popular idea, but in a manner that will allow one to hang on for the long ride it may take for full realization.

The lesson here is that being “right” is just not good enough to claim investment victory, one must find a way maintain exposure to the investment premise long enough to earn a profit. So let’s turn our focus to what may surely be the next “big investment theme” that has so far only succeeded in gaining the moniker of “The Widow-Maker”. If you guessed wagering upon when the Helicopter Economy of Japan will finally lose altitude, you would be correct. 

In a tree saving effort, let me boil my argument down to this: “It is never different this time.”

– Harley Bassman, Credit Suisse

That Japan’s economy is doomed (as best seen in this chart), as are its government bonds, is unquestionable. There is simply no way the country, faced with an inescapable demographic collapse… 

…can crawl its back to viability without imploding in an eventual deflationary singularity, from which, however, courtesy of the BOJ’s epic printathon, it may eventually inflate away its debt, but not before crucifying its currency, and the living standards of its population. In other words, there is no realistic escape.

This is not news. The problem is that for many – especially the Japanese experts – this has not been news for years and years, yet anyone and everyone who has so far bet on the collapse of the Japanese house of cards, has lost money if not gone bankrupt due to the negative carry or the time decay of any short options. Hence the name: the “widow-maker” trade.

There may, however, be a loophole for all those who, correctly, know that the end of the line for Japan is just a matter of time. The trade in question is described by the “convexity maven” – Credit Suisse’s Harley Bassman:

The Trade

Taking a “short position” in either Japanese interest rates or their currency is a fundamentally sound idea; however it may take three to seven years for the “Macro-profits” to be fully realized. Over that time, a short position will demand a cost, either in the terms of the negative carry of a spot position or the time decay of a short-dated option. Additionally, since it is unlikely you will enter the trade at the extreme, there could be some mark-to-market vibrations that may breach your risk limits.

To the rescue is the strange circumstance of a widening USD vs. JPY Rate differential in conjunction with a flattening Volatility Term Surface. Below is a table of mid-market values for Par Strike USD call // JPY put options with expiries from one-year to ten-years. The critical observation is that a five-year option costs more than a ten-year option; thus the weird dynamic of owning an option with (effectively) positive “theta”: You are paid to own an option !

This is neither financial “magic” nor an “option special”; these are all plain vanilla options than can be priced using Bloomberg’s OVDV screen. Rather, it is merely the interesting mathematical paradox between the Rate process which is Linear and the Time process which is Logarithmic.

In a nutshell, net interest income is linear to time so two years of coupon payments are twice the size as a single year’s value. In contrast, an option’s price increases with the square root of time, so a two-year option is only 1.4 times greater in price than a one-year option.

The easy execution of this idea is just to buy a ten-year call option and put it away for five years:

Strike = 100; Price ~~ Customer pays 7.375%
Strike = 110; Price ~~ Customer pays 5.375%
Strike = 120; Price ~~ Customer pays 4.125%

The more interesting trade might be to execute a five-year vs. ten-year calendar:

Sell five-year vs. Buy ten-year, Strikes = 100; Client receives 0.50%
Sell five-year vs. Buy ten-year, Strikes = 110; Client pays 0.750%
Sell five-year vs. Buy ten-year, Strikes = 120; Client pays 1.375%


1) The maximum loss for an out-right purchase is limited to the fee paid;
2) The “net” option decay is positive for longer-dated options;
3) Provides the time required to capture the “event risk” of the premise;
4) JPY rates should likely increase at a faster pace than USD rates when Japan finally needs to externally fund itself. Thus one owns a “rates kicker” since the steep negative slope of the forward currency spread will collapse (and may ultimately invert). This would greatly benefit the calendar spread execution.

The lesson from so many of the great Macro Investments Themes is that it sometimes takes the “fullness of time” to realize the largest profits. Unfortunately, the current environment has less patience to tolerate investment costs, as such a “Positive Carry” long option position should be quite interesting.

The Japanese financial situation will normalize at some point; being “paid to wait” for the first five years solves the thorny problem of trying to time that date.


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