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How Fed Funds Rate Works (and Why Forex Traders Should Care)

The aim of this post is to show how the current federal funds rate operation differs from its pre-crisis model and how it is important to Forex traders.

Before 2008

When things were simple (before 2008), the Federal Reserve set its target federal funds rate (FFR) as a single number and made sure that the effective federal funds rate (EFFR) is at the target level by performing open market operations (OMO). Those OMO normally included repurchase agreements (repo or RP) to temporarily increase the reserves supply in the federal funds market (FFM) (and thus reduce the demand and the EFFR) and reverse repurchase agreements (RRP) to temporarily decrease the supply of reserves and drive the EFFR up. It worked very well because the total size of bank reserves was rather small ($15 billion) in pre-crisis times.

Our times

Nowadays, when the Fed is holding $2.27 trillion in reserve balances (as of March 27, 2017), the old scheme would not fare so well. There is no scarcity of reserve balances at all. To create it, the Fed would need to sell a big share of its securities to shrink the total reserves to manageable size. But that would create some problems — it would drive down the prices of those securities and would launch a series of unpredictable market feedback loops. Instead, what the Fed is doing since 2008 is setting a target FFR as a range between two interest rates. For example, it is 0.75%-1.00% as of today while the EFFR, measured as volume-weighted median, was at 0.91% during the last 3 days.

Ceiling rate

The Fed makes sure that the FFM respects the target bounds by setting the interest on excess reserves (IOER) to the top boundary rate. When 95% of the reserve balances are the excess balances (balances exceeding the required level), the IOER rate paid by the Fed to the banks for holding these reserves serves as the ceiling for the rate corridor. It may sound counter-intuitive, because IOER would have been a floor level if only the FFM was composed only of the banks. However, it is not the case. The government-sponsored enterprises (GSE), such as Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and Federal Home Loan Banks, comprise the bulk of the FFM. GSEs do not earn IOER on reserve balances kept at the Fed. This creates an arbitrage opportunity for banks to borrow from GSEs and allocate the funds with the Fed to earn IOER. Consequently, the interest rate of GSE's loans to banks should be below IOER.

Floor rate

And how about the floor of the rate range (the 0.75% part of today's target range)? It is enforced by the Fed through the OMO called overnight repurchase agreement (ON RRP). With it, the Fed can drain some reserves from the system by borrowing cash from market participants, giving them securities as a collateral. Since not only banks can earn interest on their funds with ON RRP (GSEs can also do it), this sets the de facto lower boundary for the EFFR. Who would lend at a lower rate if they can choose to get at least this rate from the risk-less loan to the Fed? One important feature of the current system is that the EFFR does not cling to the upper side of the rate range (IOER) but hovers below it, falling down to near the ON RRP rate during the final day of the month. The reason for the former is that the banks pay higher FDIC insurance fees when they borrow more. And the reason for the latter is that the banks need to follow the Basel requirements, which limit their leverage, but are calculated based on the end-of-month balance sheet.

Efficiency

As a result, we can see the EFFR fluctuating between ON RRP and IOER — well within the boundaries of the Fed's target FFR. The short-term interest rates (represented by the 3-month Treasury bills) roughly follow the EFFR, which means that the interest rates get propagated beyond the FFM. Note the EFFR spiking down on each last day of the month:
EFFR inside target FFR range with 3-month Treasury Bill rate for comparison

Relation to Forex

So why should Forex traders care about this? Because effective federal funds rate and the Fed's ability to uphold it are even more important for the US dollar than the target rate set by the Federal Open Market Committee at its meetings. It is the higher EFFR that would stimulate banks buying more USD to park it either with the Fed or with the GSEs. It is the lower EFFR that would let banks to use the USD as a carry trade short side. Now you see that any significant news concerning GSE regulations, Basel III requirements, or FDIC insurance fee policies could have tremendous influence on the USD rate based on how such news could affect the EFFR. As a currency trader, you have to be up-to-date with the expectations of the FFM participants regarding those three components. I recommend the following resources to stay up-to-date with those topics:
Of course, you can also use some financial news outlet of your choice that would cover all these topics.
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How to be an Edgy Trader: Producing Positive Probabilities

After a relatively short time in Forex, most people will have heard of traders using the term "edge". "You have to have an edge", "I gotta protect my edge, man" and so on. What traders mean when they say this is something that gives them a calculated (in their perspective, anyway) reason to believe they should be profitable over enough trades. If this whole concept is completely new to you, read this for simplified explanation [link to add].

How do you actually get an edge, though? What does it mean? How does one goes about "finding their edge"?
I can only speak from a personal perspective on this, I am sure there are many more ways people have edges outside of what I am going to talk about. There will be people who have edges that are outside of my comprehension. They may be able to tell you some far cooler stuff, but I personally decided to focus on entering.

It is not a unique thought, I know. I never tried to trade-mark "enter well" but it is something I have paid particular attention to detail on. Not only how to get areas of the market that by default offer better risk reward (see more on this later in this post), but then how to put them on steroids was dialled in entries allowing for larger lots. Note, this is not to say "larger lots" means "risk everything in your account". You can risk exceptionally little as a percentage doing this, and still have the chance of good gains.

This has been something of a three part process for me. Here is how it has went;

Find areas where price is likely to reverse from where you can quickly know if you are wrong to get out.
This does not have to trend reversals, it is usually better to look for the ends of trend corrections, and enter for a new trend leg reversal. I worked out how to do this reasonably early, I think. Relative to what I have seen from others when they are starting up, I would say I was maybe on the upper end of the bell-curve in being able to broadly identify good support/resistance levels while still quite a newbie.
This might have worked out for me, if it was not for the fact I was really wanting to get tiny stops and would put far too much weight on just the levels I was selecting. Sometimes they were astonishingly accurate, which encouraged me to begin to put too much faith into them. Through this time, I was getting punked a lot in the markets. I would start to buy, get stopped out a few times and then just as I gave up buying, it would make a massive move upwards. This was so frustrating. This went on for a long time, with me constantly trying to make the forecasting of specific levels more accurate, which was what I thought the fix was.
This was a good first step. Although it felt hellish at the time, I can see now that getting a good general grasp of levels price may bounce from, or make significant breakouts through, is a good fundamental skill to have.

Expecting and accounting for spikes. Turning my foe to a friend.

So basically what happened is it got smacked with so many spike outs that I started to look at it as "it will be the place I think, plus a dirty spike" (me and spikes were not on speaking terms, at this point). This part there was a lot of arbitrariness. At the time I probably thought of it as "more art than science", but looking back on it I see while I was focusing on how unfair the spikes were and basically just "fuck you" selling into spikes. This was going a bit better, meh ... well, no this also kind sucked.
At this point I would sometimes get rock'n'roll star entries. This made me feel good. Very clever. I was not actually doing all that well, though. I could just sometimes get the spectacular entry I'd been on the hunt for. So there were times I felt particularly smug and clever during this time, but overall I was still losing. The real bane of this part became targeting. Once I'd got my rock'n'roll star entry, what now? It may sound like a good problem to have, but having risk set for a 5 pips stop and a trade up 25 pips with the potential to drop 100 more presents some serious problems. There is a lot of scope to make mistakes here. Also, even if you do what I would now consider to be the right thing (and clearly so), there is a lot of scope to do the right thing and end up feeling like you screwed up. This was what was getting me mostly in this time. My entries were good enough for me to cover my losses in big winning trades, but I was not managing big winning trades efficiently. On a psychological note, when I'd get these big decisions (having to be made in seconds sometimes) wrong, I would often lose my cool and any sense of actual trading rational.

This time was hard. I felt like what it must feel to be tired climbing a mountain, and find your intended route blocked. You can see the summit right there, but you lack a way to get there. You have already drained so many of your physical and mental resources to get where you are and now it is seriously time to ask yourself is it time to climb back down.
I decided to climb up. Then I fell a bunch of times. Licked my wounds. Fell again. Felt uber sorry for myself, and then finally got a grip and started to climb again.

Specific Entry Strategies

It was someone else who told me, they said something to me and it was really a very simple thing. I think others must have said the same thing to me many times also, but it flew in the face of my general idea of "I want to be selling the end of the spike for best possible entry". I won't go into the details of what it was, but it basically amounted to making me see that not having a predicable and repeatable level to set my stops and targets was preventing me from being able to create an edge, or even if I did; I could not understand what it was.

I started to notice things, that I'd literally watched 1,000s of times happen before and see them as nuisance rather than opportunity. I noticed the levels I'd pick price would often stall at them. Then quickly wick (which was why the "fuck you" selling into spikes worked from time to time). I further noticed that a lot of the times I was getting in at the optimum price (and I was getting rather good at this by now), when I was having big profitable trades come back against me and stop me out at tiny break even profits only to then trend for what would have been $$$, 80% or so of the time it seemed to reverse right off the original level, or close enough anyway. These two things had been killing me. The spike out of my entry level and the retrace of my profits to be slight + break even stop outs (I'd panic and close them before they went bad ... or sometimes, I'd not, and they'd go bad).

I came to see that these two things I'd blamed for being the reason I was losing were actually assets to be within my scope to benefit from. If rather than doing what I was doing and getting full risk on too early, I waited to see if it wicked through, made a convincing move and then retested my original level. If it did, the wick could be my stop loss. This was tiny. This was so much better than selling into the wick and "guesstimating" the stop ... by which of course I mean "fucking it right up".

Practical Chart Examples


https://preview.redd.it/i1551s1z9c821.png?width=1360&format=png&auto=webp&s=acaa7e80f94dfe2ba056833cd8788ba006528387
Let's say on this chart I has hypothetically selected the blue level as my sell level. This is obviously a great level if I can target close to the lows and get it even 40% of the time. My stops are tiny, and my reward is big.

Here is how I'd lose all my money while being fundamentally right here;

In phase one, I am selling 2 bars before the high, where there is the doji sort of candle. I am short, I have sold the top pip and I feel smug. Then I get spiked out. I sell a few other times with same results, then probably switch long to just completely trash my day.

In phase two, I am doing the same kinda thing but I am thinking I have out foxed the market by waiting and I start to sell into big candle breaking out of the doji. Here I have more chance of getting the trade, but often price just presses a bit too far with me being squeezed out at the high.

This chart does not really give a good representation of how things would work in phrase three, because I would be using smaller charts and looking for the signs of price action reversing, and then looking for the spots where I can get in tucking stops behind a close high. Essentially it is just added patience and being more tactical when it comes to entering.

You can see if the pay off for a "normal stop" risk reward trade would be a good one here (probably 1:3 or 1:4), the overall scope for massive profit potential (without massive risk) is humongous. Often this will be decreased because you have to trail up stops and price retraces, but if price trends aggressively, 1:20 sort of risk:reward trades can be found here. 1:10 are a lot more common. 1:5 are somewhat frequent.

Through dedicated study to how to enter and target from these sort of moves, I have gotten to a point where I can hit that 1:5 trade more than 20% of the time. Over long periods of time (assuming markets continue to be as they were), I should expect to break even by getting this 20% win rate, and when times are good, win rates like 40 - 50% lead to extraordinary profits, without extraordinary risks.

This is where I have carved out my edge in trading. It is largely based on the concepts of swings/trends formation, support and resistance and classic reversal patterns. All widely available to learn about. Then I put excessive hours of focus on how to turn that common knowledge into uncommon ability.

A determined person reading this, should be able to go and do that for themselves, based on the information provided here to get them started.

(Disclaimer, it took me YEARS, the roses here have thorns ... I want to reiterate, expect this to take some time. Even with me telling you the mistakes I squandered so much time on and how to hack past them)


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