Lessons From A Trading Great: Jim Leitner

Jim Leitner is the greatest macro trader you’ve never heard of. He was once a currency expert on Wall Street, pulling billions from the markets, but now he plays the game through his own family office.

Leitner understands the Macro Ops “go anywhere” mentality better than any other trader:

Global macro is the willingness to opportunistically look at every idea that comes along, from micro situations to country-specific situations, across every asset category and every country in the world. It’s the combination of a broad top-down country analysis with a bottom-up micro analysis of companies. In many cases, after we make our country decisions, we then drill down and analyze the companies in the sectors that should do well in light of our macro view.

I never lock myself down to investing in one style or in one country because the greatest trade in the world could be happening somewhere else. My advice is to make sure that you do not become too much of an expert in one area. Even if you see an area that is inefficient today, it’s likely that it won’t be inefficient tomorrow. Expertise is overrated.

He’ll jump into any asset or market, no matter how esoteric. Some of his craziest investments include inflation-linked housing bonds in Iceland and a primary equity partnership in a Ghanaian brewer. He even had the balls to jump into Turkish equities and currency forwards with 100% interest rates and 60% inflation during the late 90’s… the man is a macro beast.

FX Trading

Leitner was one of the first traders to understand and implement FX carry trades. A carry trade involves borrowing a lower interest rate currency to buy a higher interest rate currency. The trader earns the spread between the two rates. Here’s his own words from Drobny’s Inside The House Of Money:

The most profitable trade wasn’t a trade but an approach to markets and a realization that, over time, positive carry works. Applying this concept to higher yielding currencies versus lower yielding currencies was my most profitable trade ever. I got to the point in this trade where I was running portfolios of about $6 billion and I remember central banks being shocked at the size of currency positions I was willing to buy and hold over the course of years.

FX carry trades can be extremely lucrative. But if you get caught holding a currency during a surprise devaluation, it can instantly erase all your profits and them some. Leitner was able to protect himself by keeping a close eye on central bank action:

I was always able to sidestep currency devaluations because there were always clear signals by central banks that they were pending and then I just didn’t get involved. Devaluations are such a digital process that it doesn’t make sense to stand in front of the truck and try to pick up that last nickel before getting run down.You might as well wait, let the truck go by, then get back on the street and continue picking up nickels.

Leitner understands that currencies mean revert in the short-term and trend in the long-term. He’s explored the use of both daily and weekly mean reversion strategies:

The other thing that is pretty obvious in foreign exchange is that daily volatilities are much higher than the information received. Think of it like this:

The euro bottomed out in July 2001 at around 0.83 to the dollar and by January 2004 it was trading at 1.28. That’s a 45 big figure move divided by 900 days, giving an average daily move of 5 pips, assuming straight line depreciation. Say one month option volatility averaged around 10 percent over that period, implying a daily expected range of 75 pips.That’s a signal-to-noise ratio of 1 to 15. In other words, there was 15 times as much noise as there was information in prices!

Noise is just noise, and it’s clearly mean reverting. Knowing that, we should be trading mean reverting strategies. In the short term, it’s a no brainer to be running daily and weekly mean reverting strategies. When things move up by whatever definition you use, you should sell and when they move back down, you should buy. On average, over time you’re going to make money or earn risk premia.

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Disclaimer: In 2013 and 2014 I made the vast majority of my profits trading currencies. Those also happen to be my best return years. The last two years trading in currencies have been a ...

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