New bitcoin futures suggest breakneck price gains to slow

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Newly launched bitcoin futures on Monday suggested that traders expect the cryptocurrency’s blistering price gains to slow in the coming months.

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Chicago-based derivatives exchange Cboe Global Markets launched the futures late on Sunday, marking the first time investors could get exposure to the bitcoin market via a large, regulated exchange.

The one-month bitcoin contract <0#XBT:> opened at 6 p.m. local time (2300 GMT) on Sunday at $15,460. By midday on Monday in New York, it was trading at $17,780, roughly 10 percent above bitcoin’s spot price of $16,335 on the Bitstamp exchange.

But given bitcoin has almost tripled in value over the past month, and was up more than 10 percent on Monday alone, the futures pricing suggested investors see price increases moderating.

And many traders may be looking for payoffs other than a simple gain in the price of bitcoin, said Hussein Sayed, chief market strategist at FXTM in Dubai.

He noted though that the listing of the futures contract on Cboe and next week on the CME will likely provide at least a temporary arbitrage trading opportunity due to pricing differences.

Sayed added that the arbitrage trading should lead to “improved price efficiency and probably less volatility.”

After volatility settles down, investors will focus again on price direction, he said.

Bitcoin futures were already offered on some unregulated cryptocurrency exchanges outside the United States, but backers said the U.S. market debut would confer greater legitimacy on the volatile cryptocurrency and encourage its wider use.

The CME Group is expected to launch its futures contract on Dec. 17.

VOLATILITY CONCERNS

Although there are hopes that the futures will draw in new investors, most fund managers at larger asset managers and institutional investors say bitcoin remains too volatile and lacks the fundamentals that give other assets value.

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“There’s no place for bitcoin in a multi-asset portfolio given the very high volatility,” said Robeco Chief Investment Officer Lukas Daalder.

The two-month contract was trading at $17,970 a 10 percent premium over the spot price, while the three-month contract was changing hands at $18,140, a roughly 11 percent premium.

Despite being modest when compared with bitcoin’s 270 percent increase over the past three months and 230 percent rise in the last two months, those levels still showed a lack of large “short” positions betting against bitcoin.

“Anyone, especially a professional trading outfit, would be crazy to actually short sell this bull market,” said Nick Spanos, founder of Bitcoin Center NYC. “But just because it doesn’t happen on day one doesn’t mean it won’t in the future.”

Bitcoin is up more than 1,500 percent so far in 2017, having started the year at less than $1,000.

‘MARCH TOWARDS LEGITIMISATION’

As of early afternoon trading in New York, 3,613 one-month contracts had changed hands, meaning around $64.7 million had been notionally traded. That compares with daily trading volumes of more than $21.5 billion across all cryptocurrencies, according to trade website Coinmarketcap.

There had been speculation that the futures launch would trigger more gyrations in the market. But while volatile compared with traditional currencies or assets, the 10 percent rise on Monday was relatively tame for bitcoin.

Bitcoin surged more than 40 percent in 48 hours last week, before tumbling 20 percent in the following 10 hours.

“(Bitcoin futures) will speed up the march towards legitimisation of an asset class that only a few years ago many law enforcement agencies would have argued had limited legitimate reasons for people to use,” said Jo Torode, a financial crime lawyer at Ropes & Gray in London.

The futures are cash-settled contracts, allowing investors exposure without having to hold any of the cryptocurrency.

The futures are based on the auction price of bitcoin in U.S. dollars on the Gemini Exchange, which is owned and operated by virtual currency entrepreneurs and brothers Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss.

DRAMATIC GAINS

Bitcoin’s origins have been the subject of much speculation.

It was set up in 2008 by an individual or group calling themselves Satoshi Nakamoto, and was the first digital currency to successfully use cryptography to keep transactions secure and hidden, making traditional financial regulation difficult if not impossible.

Central bankers and critics of the cryptocurrency have been ringing the alarm bells over its surge in price and other risks such as whether the opaque market can be used for money laundering.

“It looks remarkably like a bubble forming to me,” the Reserve Bank of New Zealand’s Acting Governor Grant Spencer said on Sunday.

Somebody who invested $1,000 in bitcoin at the start of 2013 would now be sitting on around $1.2 million.

Heightened excitement ahead of the launch of the Cboe futures had given an extra kick to the cryptocurrency’s scorching run this year.

The launch has so far received a mixed reception from big U.S. banks and brokerages.

Several online brokerages, including Charles Schwab Corp and TD Ameritrade Holding Corp, did not allow trading of the new futures immediately.

The Financial Times reported on Friday that JPMorgan Chase & Co, Citigroup Inc would not immediately clear bitcoin trades for clients.

Goldman Sachs Group Inc said on Thursday it was planning to clear such trades for certain clients.

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