Understanding Interest Rate Differentials

Various paper currencies

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An interest rate differential is a difference in the interest rate between two currencies in a pair. If one currency has an interest rate of 3% and the other has an interest rate of 1%, it has a 2% interest rate differential. The use of interest rate differentials is of particular concern in foreign exchange markets for pricing purposes.

If you were to buy the currency that pays 3% against the currency that pays 1%, you would be paid on the difference with daily interest payments. This is known as the carry trade, earning carry on the interest rate differential. Economic developments throughout the 2010s, such as negative interest rates, have sparked a new level of curiosity about interest rate differentials.

Key Takeaways

  • An interest rate differential is the difference in the interest rate between two currencies in a pair in foreign exchange markets.
  • The carry trade is when you buy high-interest currency against low-interest currency and earn daily interest payments on the difference.
  • Starting in 2014, developed market economies took their interest rates below zero while emerging market currencies raised their interest rates.
  • Forex traders look to make the most of the ​negative interest rate policy with the carry trade, but this strategy is risky for new investors.

Negative Interest Rate Policy (NIRP)

Starting in 2014, economists began noticing a sharp divergence between the interest rates in developed market economies and emerging market economies. Developed market economies took their interest rates below zero to try and spur demand while emerging market currencies raised their interest rates to limit capital outflow and economic instability. In February 2016, for instance, the Bank of Mexico (Banxico) held an emergency meeting to raise its borrowing rate by 50 basis points while selling U.S. dollars at the market rate to spur demand for the falling Mexican peso.

While this widened the interest rate differential between the United States and Mexico, it was also taken by the market as a sign of instability or possible desperation by central banks to prevent the global economy from spinning out of control.

The Carry Trade

Forex traders look to make the most of the ​negative interest rate policy with the carry trade. They do this by selling euros or Japanese yen (or any currency with negative interest rates) and buying emerging market currencies such as that of the Indian rupee, South African rand, Mexican peso, or Turkish lira. These trades, which on paper have very large interest rate differentials, could easily end up being risky, especially if the economic pain found in emerging market currencies continues or becomes more severe.

While the carry trade does earn interest on the interest rate differential, a move in the underlying currency pair spread could easily fall (and has often done so, historically)—which could wipe out the benefits of the carry trade.

"If it looks too good to be true, it probably is." That old saying can apply to interest rate differentials. In other words, when interest rate differentials widen too much, they have done so because the risk is seen as threatening to the borrowers in those countries.

Especially if you are a new forex trader, who has just heard about the carry trade, proceed with caution. You may see negative interest rate currencies that look like attractive selling currencies while emerging market currencies seem to be alluring buying currencies. As of 2019, frequent upheaval in commodities and uncertainty stemming from trade disputes between China and the U.S. continues to put pressure on the highest yielding currencies. At the same time, the introduction of negative interest rates, as well as uncertainty about quantitative easing's future, continue to see money flow to haven assets that often have the lowest (or negative) interest rates.