Many popular trading strategies are based on some forms of fundamental or technical analysis. They attempt to value securities based on some fundamental multiples or technical indicators. These valuation techniques can be considered “absolute pricing”. Arbitrage trading strategies, on the other hand, are based on a so-called relative pricing. So what is relative pricing?
The theory and practice of relative pricing are derived from the principle of no arbitrage. Stephen A. Ross, a renowned professor of finance, is known for saying:
You can make even a parrot into a learned political economist—all he must learn are the two words “supply” and “demand”… To make the parrot into a learned financial economist, he only needs to learn the single word “arbitrage”.
What he was referring to is what financial economists call the principle of no risk-free arbitrage or the law of one price which states that: “Any two securities with identical future payouts, no matter how the future turns out, should have identical current prices.”
Relative pricing based on the principle of no risk-free arbitrage underlies most of the derivative pricing models in quantitative finance. That is, a security is valued based on the prices of other securities that are as similar to it as possible. For example an over-the-counter interest-rate swap is valued based on the prices of other traded swaps and not on, for example, some macro-economic factors. A bespoke basket option is valued based on the prices of its components’ vanilla options.
The principle of no risk-free arbitrage is employed in its original form in trading strategies such as convertible and volatility arbitrage. In statistical arbitrage it is, however, relaxed; it normally involves stocks which are similar but not 100% identical.
In summary, relative pricing based on the principle of no risk-free arbitrage is very different from absolute pricing. It is the foundation of many derivative pricing models and quantitative trading strategies.