On 31 October 2017, we discussed the announcement that the CME Group was responding to client interest and launching a Bitcoin Futures contract before the end of this year. CME stated that the contract would be cash settled based on the CME CF Bitcoin Reference rate, a once-a-day reference rate of the US dollar Bitcoin price at 4.00pm London time. In the run-up to the launch of the futures contract, the Financial Times has written a piece on the likely impact of futures trading on the Bitcoin price.
The title of the piece makes the FT’s view clear, “Prepare to bet against bitcoin as it becomes civilised”. We disagree with using the word “civilised” in this context (see below), but here is the FT’s take.
In recent years, bitcoin has been the wild west of the financial world. Now, however, it is being civilised — a touch. In the coming weeks, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange plans to start listing bitcoin futures, with a centralised clearing mechanism. Cboe Global Markets may follow suit. That will enable investors to bet on the coin’s future value without actually holding it — just as investors can use the Chicago exchange to bet on hog prices, say, without ever handling a pig.
To its credit, the FT reflects the concerns from some CME participants that there is insufficient regulatory oversight and Bitcoin’s stratospheric vol could lead to significant losses for some traders.
Is this a good idea? Some of the CME’s members do not think so. This week Interactive Brokers, an important clearing firm in the exchange, took the extraordinary step of using a newspaper advertisement to ask for more regulatory oversight. It fears that bitcoin is potentially so volatile that these futures will create huge losses for traders, which might then undermine the health of the CME and hurt other brokers, given its part-mutualised structure. The CME — unsurprisingly — dismisses this as poppycock: it argues that any risks will be contained by rules that allow traders to charge more so as to generate fat margins (of about 30 per cent) and thus absorb losses, and by circuit breakers that would stop a trade in the event of wild price swings.
Our suspicion is that CME Group has seen the volume of Bitcoin trading and is determined to get its “cut”, whether or not some of its members take some big hits or not. It can deal with those issues if or when they occur. Anyway, the FT moves on to the more interesting subject of the impact on Bitcoin’s price. We should note that when the futures contract was announced the price surged more than $100 to a then all-time high of $645.
But while the regulatory debate bubbles on, there is a more immediate question facing investors: bitcoin prices. Until now, it has been an article of faith among bitcoin evangelists that if — or when — the currency became more “civilised”, this will boost the price. After all, the argument goes, assimilating bitcoin into the mainstream investment world should boost its appeal and demand, making it more valuable.
As the FT alludes to in the articles title, it expects the Bitcoin price to fall.
It is highly likely there will be an opposite effect. Until now, investors have not had an easy way to bet against bitcoin — the only “short” was to sell coins. But the CME futures contract will let investors place those negative bets. You do not need to be a conspiracy theorist to imagine that some bitcoin cynics will be doing just that.
To support its case, the FT cites the example of Japan launching equity derivatives in 1989, just before the bubble burst.
Think, for example, about Japan. Before the mid-1980s, its stock market seemed to exist on a planet of its own, subject to its own valuation rules. But when Japanese equity derivative contracts were launched, and then integrated within the wider global market system as a result of financial reform, that sense of “otherness” broke down. The change in how Japan was seen through a comparative investment lens was not the only reason for the 1990 Nikkei crash, but it contributed.
We have a slight problem with using this as an analogy for Bitcoin. Firstly, an ultra-hawkish BOJ-governor was nominated in mid-1989 who announced his intention to crackdown on house price inflation and the shadow banking system which was facilitating much of the leverage. Secondly, all bubbles burst and Japan’s was extreme. For example, depending on whether you use the highest per square metre property deal in the Ginza district, or one in the Chiyoda district, the land underneath the Imperial Palace was valued between $852 billion and $5.1 trillion at the time. Futures trading, we would suggest, played a tiny role.
The FT cites the launch of trading in the ABX Index prior to the sub-prime crisis, as another example.
So too with US mortgages. Until 2005 or so, outsiders could not easily assess or price the risks of America’s subprime mortgages: mortgage-backed bond prices were opaque, and the only way to short the market was to sell bonds. But when mortgage derivatives, such as the ABX index, were launched, it suddenly became easy to make negative bets. Then, the ABX index was published in newspapers, such as the Financial Times, in 2007, creating a visible barometer of sentiment. That helped a sense of panic to feed on itself after 2008.
Once again, we would suggest the FT is confusing the impact of derivatives with an inevitable reversion of market price of an asset in a bubble as expectations regarding the outlook changed. In the case of sub-prime, housing prices in the US had never fallen, then they did, the AAA-ratings of the bonds were manifestly incorrect and the dramatically overpriced sub-prime bonds were pledged as collateral in all manner of other risky, leveraged trades.
From our perspective, the impact of the futures launch is difficult to gauge as it depends on the interaction of two opposing forces.
Firstly, as cryptocurrencies gradually become accepted as an asset class, more institutional money is likely to enter the sector and holding long futures positions is one way to do it.
Secondly, as the article notes, Bitcoin futures will be settled in cash, which means there is potential for the volume of futures trading to vastly outweigh the buying and selling of “actual” Bitcoins. If this occurs, then the “tail can wag the dog” as price discovery is dominated by futures trading. This permits all manner of market abuse via naked short selling by investors, major banks and any “official” players who deem it necessary to manipulate the Bitcoin price.
For this reason, we don’t agree that adding a futures contract will necessarily “civilise” Bitcoin, indeed, it might have the opposite effect.
The second scenario precisely describes the state of the “gold” market today. According to the Reserve Bank of India’s estimate, the ratio of “paper gold” trading to physical gold trading is 92:1, meaning that the price of gold on the screens has almost nothing to do with the buying and selling of physical gold. This makes the gold market and, therefore, the gold price something of a mockery. As Zero Hedge has highlighted time after time, the gold price has frequently been subject to waterfall declines, as huge volumes of gold futures are dumped on the market with no regard for price. See "Gold Slammed After Someone Pukes $4bn Notional In Gold Futures" on 10 November 2017. Perhaps the FT journalist, Gillian Tett, could write an article on gold, instead of Bitcoin, explaining how the price of the former – a widely viewed indicator of financial risk – is being suppressed by derivative trading. Indeed, Tett was present at a private dinner in Scott’s of Mayfair several years ago when the Gold Anti-Trust Action Committee gave a presentation on exactly the same process which she expects to lower the Bitcoin price.