On September 12, Jamie Dimon caused a stir (and selloff) within the cryptocurrency community when he lashed out at bitcoin, calling it a "fraud" which is "worse than tulip bulbs, predicting "it won't end well", will "blow up" and "someone is going to get killed." Oh, and just to make it clear, "any JPM trader caught trading bitcoin" would be "fired for being stupid."
After briefly plunging, since then the price of Bitcoin has doubled, and earlier today, Bloomberg quoted money manager David Kotok who said that "clients bring up bitcoin all the time. They think it’s cool. It has the newness, which is attractive to some people, though others would say newness is a risk they don’t want to take." For banks, as Lloyd Blankfein learned over the past month, this means they have a choice: either get with it, and make money on the latest investing craze, or stand aside and make nothing.
And now, none other than JPMorgan is "getting with it", because as the WSJ reports, despite Dimon's guarantee of a pink slip for any trader caught transaction in bitcoin, the bank is now looking at business opportunities in the planned bitcoin-futures market, which the CME has said it will launch by the end of the year. Specifically, J.P. Morgan is considering whether to provide its clients access to CME’s new bitcoin product through its futures-brokerage unit. That, the WSJ reports, means the bank’s customers could use it to trade bitcoin futures while J.P. Morgan collects fees for such services, seemingly in violation of its fiduciary duty considering its CEO just two months ago called the product a "fraud."
The reversal is not definitive yet, and the process has involved assessing whether there is demand among J.P. Morgan’s customers for the proposed CME bitcoin contract, according to the WSJ source, although judging by the reverse inquiry, there clearly is.
And where JPM goes, others are sure to follow:
Other banks must also make the call about whether to support CME’s bitcoin futures. Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Bank of America Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley are among the dozens of firms that offer their customers access to CME’s markets through their futures-brokerage arms.
But, as everyone knows courtesy of repeat media appearances by the outspoken CEO, none of those banks has chief executive who has been as critical of bitcoin as Dimon, who has blasted it as a “fraud” and compared it with past financial bubbles. “If you’re stupid enough to buy it, you will pay the price for it one day,” he told a conference last month.
And now, in delightful irony, JPM is preparing to make money by offering this "fraud" to clients. This, also, just days after JPM was busted for assisting money laundering in Switzerland after accusing bitcoin of being used as a tool for money laundering.
Here, we naturally commisserate with the JPM chief: In a world in which as Mike Novogratz said earlier, retail interest in equities has been waning over the past decade as "investors no longer trust financial institutions", the only alternative to grip the public's trading and investing interest has been the very bitcoin (and other digital currencies) so loathed by establishment commercial and central banks, especially since the "money" is printed not by some central bank, but the universe of users themselves: a lack of control central banks would never willingly cede.
JPM's looming decision about whether to let customers trade bitcoin futures underscores the challenges that Wall Street firms face as the cryptocurrency emerges from the shadowy margins of the financial markets and draws growing investor interest. Meanwhile, CME CEO Terrence Duffy said in a CNBC interview this month he expects trading in bitcoin futures to begin the second week of December. Launching futures would bring the virtual currency a big step closer to the financial mainstream, making it easier for both large financial firms and retail investors to trade it.
Furthermore, as we showed in September, J.P. Morgan already gladly collects commcision for handling client trades of Bitcoin XBT, an ETN trading in Europe and tracking bitcoin. While the bank has said it doesn’t take positions in the note and simply routes customers’ buy and sell orders electronically to exchanges, it wouldn't be the first time JPM has lied about it considers prop trades (see the London Whale).
In any case, brokering trades in bitcoin futures would be similar, as JPM would be happy to collect a spread every time a client buys or sell the "fraud." And once in, JPM will have no choice but - as a matter of ego - to be the biggest. J.P. Morgan is the second-biggest futures broker in the U.S., second only to Goldman, CFTC data show.
And as more and more Wall Street firms scramble to offer the retail public access to bitcoin, last week IB CEO Thomas Peterffy, warned that CME needs to ring-fence its system for clearing bitcoin futures trades from the rest of its markets, or else losses in bitcoin could end up rippling through the broader financial system.
“Unless the risk of clearing cryptocurrency is isolated and segregated from other products, a catastrophe in the cryptocurrency market that destabilizes a clearing organization will destabilize the real economy,” Mr. Peterffy wrote last week in an open letter to the chairman of the CFTC, which he also published in a full-page advertisement in The Wall Street Journal.
Ironically, this legitimate warning appears to have only cemented JPM's resolve to become a bitcoin middleman, and soon, principal. Which brings us to a question we first asked two months ago: "which is it Jamie?"