A Big Step Backward for Bitcoin

Sixteen months. That's how long the first bitcoin futures product lasted.

Less than a year and a half after being the first major exchange to offer a cryptocurrency derivative product, Cboe Global Markets (NYSEMKT: CBOE) has decided to stop adding new bitcoin futures to its offerings, a major blow to the investment case behind the leading cryptocurrency. Although this certainly isn't the only bitcoin futures product in the market, it's a big step backward for bitcoin as an investable asset.

Why is Cboe getting rid of bitcoin futures?

We don't know with 100% certainty, but it's fair to assume that it's because enthusiasm for bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies has plummeted over the past year or so. Since the futures reached a peak at nearly $20,000 in late 2017 -- right around the time Cboe introduced its first bitcoin futures -- the air has completely gone out of bitcoin's sails. As of this writing, bitcoin trades for less than $4,000, a drop of about 80% from the peak.

If you aren't familiar, futures contracts essentially allow investors to bet on whether the price of a certain commodity will rise or fall by a specified date. Futures contracts expire each month, so if an exchange stops creating new futures contracts for a specific commodity (like bitcoin), there will eventually be none left in existence.

In a recent statement, Cboe confirmed that no new bitcoin futures contracts will be created in March 2019, nor does it intend to create any in subsequent months. Cboe is not ruling out the possibility of further bitcoin or other cryptocurrency derivatives, but it has no immediate plans to offer any, a point it made clear in its statement.

Why it's a big deal

Cboe was the first exchange to offer bitcoin futures contracts, rolling out the industry's first bitcoin derivative contracts on December 10, 2017.

To be clear, there are other bitcoin futures contracts, such as those offered by CME Group. Furthermore, the trading volume of CME's bitcoin futures contracts is several times greater than that of Cboe's, and CME hasn't announced any similar plans to discontinue its bitcoin futures. So the move by Cboe doesn't exactly kill the market for bitcoin futures.

However, because it was the first mover in the space, Cboe's rollout of bitcoin futures was widely seen as a major potential catalyst for institutional interest in the cryptocurrency space. It also was thought to greatly legitimize bitcoin as an investment, not just as a vehicle for speculation. After all, bitcoin futures gave investors a way to profit from bitcoin price movements in either direction, just like they can do with stocks and commodities.

Unfortunately, widespread institutional interest doesn't seem to have materialized -- at least not to the extent investors had hoped. And the decision by Cboe to stop creating bitcoin futures contracts tells us the exchange doesn't expect that to change anytime soon.

Could something else bring institutional investors into bitcoin?

Ever since bitcoin's 2017 surge in popularity, experts have cited two types of products that could result in a surge of institutional investment dollars. The first, futures, obviously hasn't worked out as many bitcoin enthusiasts had hoped.

The second, a bitcoin ETF, could certainly bring institutional investors into the mix. However, the SEC is yet to approve a single one after many attempts. Until it does, or some other catalyst causes a spike in institutional interest, it may be difficult to make the case that bitcoin has significant upside potential over the next few years.

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Matthew Frankel, CFP has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Cboe Global Markets Inc. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.