Views Article – Sharenet Wealth


What Is Pair Trading?

Pair trading is a market neutral trading strategy enabling traders to profit from virtually any market conditions: uptrend, downtrend, or sideways movement. This strategy is categorized as a statistical arbitrage and convergence trading strategy” – Wikipedia, Pairs Trade

The strategy monitors two historically correlated stocks, usually in the same sector. When the correlation weakens, the spread between the two stocks widens. In other words, the stocks are affected similarly by the economy, market sentiment, currency, etc.

The idea is to buy the underperformer and short the share that is the outperformer, expecting that the spread between the two securities will start to converge, narrowing the spread back to the norm and turning a profit. The potential outcomes of both legs are irrelevant: it is the cumulative gain (after brokerage, carry cost and dividends received and paid out) on both legs which is important.

Pair trading or market neutral strategies have been around for a very long time, but with the big boom of the hedge fund industry in the 1980s and the increase in computing power, more traders started to explore and experiment with these new strategies in order to hunt more alpha. Most notably in the 1980s, a group of quantitative traders from Morgan Stanley apparently used this strategy in order to yield over $50 000 000 profit for the firm in 1987 alone.

An example

Pair trading by definition follows a “mean reverting” process in identifying the trades. The easiest way to explain pair trading is to use an example.

Below is a chart of SBK (Standard Bank Group Limited) using DMA charts on our trading platform:

(Click image to enlarge)image1

Standard bank SBKJ.J (Reuters RIC)

  • Percentage move this year: 6.68%
  • Year to date move: -11.07%
  • Yield: 5.33%
  • EPS: 16.44
  • PE: 10.74
  • Beta 1.02
  • Bullish MA count: 2
  • Bearish MA count: 1
  • Next earnings date: 7 March 2019
  • Next dividend date: 11 April 2019
  • Market Cap: 286,832 Million
  • Free float: 99.9%

Next we have a chart of FirstRand:

(Click image to enlarge)image2

FirstRand Limited FSRJ.J (Reuters RIC)

  • Percentage move this year: 31.46%
  • Move year to date: 1.52%
  • Yield: 3.96%
  • EPS: 4.73
  • PE: 14.66
  • Beta 1.08
  • Bullish MA count: 3
  • Bearish MA count: 0
  • Next earnings date: 4 March 2019
  • Next dividend date: 7 Feb 2019
  • Market Cap: 329,793 Million
  • Free float: 56.5%

Once you have had a look at the basic fundamentals and news, when the next earnings date is, when the next dividend will be posted, and so on, you would then work out the pair.

The two most popular methods of working out the pair are using the spread or the ratio:

  1. Spread = Subtract the one share price from the other
  2. Ratio = Divide the one share price by the other

Some strategies even advocate a beta neutral approach.

I prefer looking at the ratio as it’s the simplest. The ratio is calculated by dividing the share price you are going to go long on by the share price you’re going to short. So in the example, I would like to see if going long on Standard Bank and shorting FirstRand is a feasible idea.

In the graph below, I created an easy overlay of both SBKJ.J (in black) and FSRJ.J (in orange). We can see that they are relatively closely correlated over the last while.

(Click image to enlarge)image3

Another great part of DMA’s trading platform is that one can work out the ratio very easily:

(Click image to enlarge)image4

The line graph below is the price of SBKJ.J divided by FSRJ.J:

(Click image to enlarge)image5

If you expect the ratio to go down 10%, and it goes below 10%, this is where you would like to take a stop and close the position out. You would need to work out how much you will be willing to lose per trade.

(Click image to enlarge)table1

Let’s say hypothetically you’re willing to risk a 10.59% move in the ratio. If you go long the NAV will be R47 214.35 worth of SBK, and go short the NAV will be R47 214.35 worth of FSR.

How many shares I should buy or short?

Let’s say the price of Standard Bank is trading at R174.38 per share and the price of First Rand is R68.45 per share. Dividing the NAV by the price of the share will give you how many shares to buy or short.

(Click image to enlarge)table2

So to put this pair on long (buy) SBKJ.J 270 shares and short (sell) FSRJ.J 689 shares, and the price appreciates 10.59%, your profit before cost will be approximately R5000.00.

Something to account for is the brokerage fee you will need to cover, and the distance to target or stop loss.  Bear in mind the risk of slippage, as you won’t always have a true 100% pair.

Also remember that on shorts you earn interest, and you pay out interest on longs, so this makes it cheaper to hold both long and shorts (pairs) than a complete long-only portfolio in the market.

Lastly, be aware that this style of trading can take out:

  • Market risk: It doesn’t matter what the general market does, you’re worried about the relationship between the two shares.
  • Currency risk: A lot of our share are big rand hedges. If you’re afraid the rand will impact your trade, find another rand hedge to pair it up with.
  • Volatility, and profit and loss swings in the portfolio
  • Sector risk

Closing thoughts

My description here is not the only way to trade pairs, nor am I saying this is the best strategy to follow. The main purpose of this article is to explain that you can trade pairs just like normal stocks, and shows how similar this strategy is compared to buying or shorting normal CFDs.

Adding multiple strategies when trading the markets helps to diversify out the risk. At Sharenet this is one of the strategies that we follow and trade.

If you are interested in following this style of trading and developing more as a trader by learning new styles and strategies, please contact us.


Juan Breytenbach
Sales Trader : Sharenet Johannesburg

Juan developed a passion for the markets and short/medium term trading early in life and decided to pursue a career as a professional trader back in 2012. He started his career at Vunani Private Clients, as a private client trader as well as in “principal” capacity before moving to Capilis Asset Managers (later acquired by Sharenet). Juan uses a holistic view when analysing market opportunities. He considers everything including technical and fundamental analysis, as well as Sharenet Analytics and other quantitative models to identify trade ideas as well as entry and exit levels. Juan is an avid sportsman and a big history nerd. He holds the designated Registered JSE securities trader, RE5 & RPE exams and is currently studying towards his B. Com Banking degree.

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