Dollar Roll

What Is a Dollar Roll?

A dollar roll is a bearish trade employed in the mortgage-backed securities (MBS) market that benefits a trader when those MBS securities decline in value. The dollar roll at the same time provides the initiator cash to work with for a short period of time. In simpler terms, a dollar roll is to sell short MBS.

A dollar roll should not be confused with rolling expiring derivatives contracts nor a jelly roll, which is an options trading strategy.

Key Takeaways

  • A dollar roll is a trade that shorts mortgage-backed securities, profiting when the value of MBS securities falls.
  • A dollar roll involves a repo: an initial short sale, to be repurchased at a later date.
  • Most dollar roll trades are short-term in nature, lasting only several weeks or less.

How a Dollar Roll Transaction Works

In the world of MBS, a dollar roll is somewhat similar to selling stocks short. Just as a short-seller in the stock market profits from falling stock prices, a dollar roll buyer can profit from a drop in the price of mortgage-backed securities.

To accomplish this an investor will initiate a repurchase transaction in the mortgage pass-through securities market in which they, the buy-side trade counterparty of a "to be announced" (TBA) trade agrees to sell off that same trade in the current month and to a buy back the same trade in a future month.

In a dollar roll, the initiating investor gets cash back from their sale. They can then invest the funds that otherwise would have been required to settle the buy trade in the current month until the agreed-upon future buy-back. The other side of the trade, the sell-side trade counterparty, benefits by not having to deliver the mortgage-backed securities in the current month, thus retaining the principal and interest payments that would normally be passed through to the holder of those securities.

The initiator of the dollar roll is hoping that they can either buy back the securities at a lower price, or make a short-term profit from the money gained from the dollar roll, or preferably both. The dollar roll transaction is conducted in securities that have the same product and the same coupon rate but with different contract dates, hence the term roll. The most common and most liquid contract dates are one-month and three-month rolls. 

Special Considerations

The price difference between months is known as the drop. When the drop becomes very large, the dollar roll is said to be "on special". This might happen for several reasons, including large collateralized mortgage obligation deals that increase the demand for mortgage pass-through securities, or unexpected fallout of mortgage closings in a mortgage originator's pipeline.

In both cases, financial institutions might have more sell trades in the current month than they are able to deliver securities into, forcing them to "roll" those trades into a future month. The greater the shortage of available securities in the current month, the larger the drop becomes. Investors that could anticipate such conditions could profit from a dollar roll transaction.

Rolls can be purchased by a new transaction where the originator wishes to push their hedge out to a further date. For example, if an investor sells an outright contract and wishes to push it out one month, they would then have to "buy and sell" in the one-month roll market. Because there is no increase or decrease in the outright position, dollar rolls carry no, or very little, duration risk. It is simply an extension of a contract, not a new contract. 

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