Bitcoin futures surged as much as 26 percent in their December 10 debut on Cboe Global Markets, creating traffic on Cboe’s website that was so heavy it caused temporary outages. About twenty trading firms actively participated, with the notional value of contracts traded in the first eight hours totaling around $40 million. Although that is a drop in the bucket compared to the global $1.1 billion of bitcoin traded against the U.S. dollar during the same eight hour period, it appears to be just the tip of the iceberg for futures trading in the world’s most popular cryptocurrency. Cboe’s biggest rival, CME Group, recently joined the movement by launching a competing product on December 18, and Nasdaq Inc. has plans for its own bitcoin futures contract in 2018 (although no hard date is set).
So what does this mean? At face value, it is a milestone in the acceptance of bitcoin by the mainstream investing world, spurred in part by bitcoin’s meteoric rise this year. And while skeptics still abound, the availability of futures contracts may now provide an opportunity to burst what they see as a bubble. According to Craig Pirrong, a business professor at the University of Houston, the availability of futures contracts makes it easier to short bitcoin, which “might keep the bitcoin price a little closer to reality.” But whichever way you want to bet on the cryptocurrency, it seems there is no shortage of interest in bitcoin futures among U.S. exchange companies. Earlier this month, Jeff Sprecher, CEO of Intercontinental Exchange Inc., said at an investor conference that “we may be stupid for not being first” to launch a bitcoin futures contract.
Currently, the bulk of bitcoin is traded on a network of unregulated exchanges, which present obstacles that have kept out big money managers like mutual funds. But the new futures contracts should thrust bitcoin more squarely into the realm of regulators, banks and institutional investors. Cboe and CME got permission to offer the contracts through the “self-certification” process, in which they pledged to the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) that their bitcoin futures products do not run afoul of the law.
Despite the somewhat smooth rollout of those products, there is still a view that bitcoin derivatives are premature, given the cryptocurrency’s volatility and lack of transparency in the market. To that point, Thomas Peterffy, the Chairman of Interactive Brokers Group Inc., wrote a November open letter to CFTC Chairman J. Christopher Giancarlo, arguing that bitcoin’s large price swings mean its futures contracts shouldn’t be allowed on platforms that clear other derivatives. More broadly, SEC Chairman Jay Clayton recently reissued a cautionary message on cryptocurrencies and initial coin offerings (ICOs) to Main Street investors, which was quickly endorsed by Mr. Giancarlo.
In sum, the start of futures trading is an important step for bitcoin’s shift towards mainstream investing, but it could be some time before the cryptocurrency becomes a key part of investor portfolios. While the future of bitcoin futures is still hazy, it is clear that more and more big money institutions are warming to the idea, and it will be important to stay abreast of how the market reacts to these new products, as well as the reactions of regulators.