Bitcoin volumes and volatility – now what?

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CoinDesk reported yesterday on the change in the pricing strategy of the three largest Chinese bitcoin exchanges: BTCC, Huobi and OKCoin. This weekend they announced that they were suspending their “no fee” policy and moving to a 0.2% flat fee, “in response to guidance from the People’s Bank of China”.

Today we reported on the impact of this decision on trading volumes. No surprise – they’re much lower.

A bit of background: the “no fee” model may sound like an extraordinary business strategy (not charging for your main business), but it’s actually not very different from the “Freemium” models we see all over the place, in which most stuff is free, but some things not. The basic service is available to anyone, but for better content or service, you pay something. It’s an old strategy, even used by physical retail outlets – to get you in the store, they price some products so cheaply that they lose money on them. These are called “loss leaders”. The idea is that while you’re there, you’ll buy other stuff as well, and the store will make money there.

In the case of bitcoin exchanges, they don’t make money on the trades they execute, but they do charge a fee for entries and withdrawals. If you want to put money into your account, there’s a fee for that. If you want to take money out, also. But the trading you do in between, no charge.

The practice recently seeped into European exchanges, with London-based Coinfloor (number 25 in terms of fee-based bitcoin trading volume, according to Coinmarketcap, and the largest in the UK) announcing last week that it would adopt this pricing strategy.

The objective is to bring in liquidity. The result is to inflate volumes.

Since there is no charge for buying and selling, traders feel that they can churn holdings as much as they wish. And even small gains are worth it, especially if repeated several times during the trading day, since there is no associated monetary cost.

So, volumes are much higher under a “no fee” policy than they would be otherwise, and the PBoC regarded this as “fake volume” which added unnecessary volatility to the market.

In fact, the impact of no fees is so stark that Coinmarketcap (where I get my relative exchange volumes) only includes exchanges with fees in their main ranking (although you can get the whole list in another tab).

So, the volume hit was not a surprise. The announcement last week that the exchanges have halted margin trading (in which the exchange lends you the money to trade, which further encourages speculation) is no doubt also likely to have an impact.

The question now is: will this lower volatility? Or will it increase it?

Intuitively, less “churning” of holdings should make prices more stable. Trades are more “real” in that they are not about grasping at small gains. Positions are (in theory) held for longer, since changing them now incurs a cost. Less “fake” volumes, the PBoC’s reasoning goes, means more stable markets and less risk for non-professional investors.

But, lower volumes means lower liquidity, which means more vulnerability to swings due to large buy or sell orders. With higher liquidity, large orders have less of an impact as there are more funds available to settle those orders. Lower liquidity means that prices move more to tempt traders to take a side.

That, at least, was the argument that LedgerX gave in a CoinDesk interview yesterday. Here we have a derivatives exchange arguing that approval by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) would decrease bitcoin’s volume. Yes, you heard right, derivative trading can decrease volatility. Or so they say, and maybe they’re right, but I’m having a hard time getting my head around this.

The argument is that the increased liquidity from regulated bitcoin options will provide the market with a cushion to absorb large orders and avoid the price swings that usually result. My skepticism stems from the fact that it often is the need to close out derivative positions that generates these large orders in the first place, orders that often need to be filled in a hurry, at any price.

I do buy the argument that increased derivatives trading enhances price discovery, as future expected prices tend to react less to current events. And I understand that an active (and regulated) futures market can reduce the need to place large market-moving buy orders to “bet” on a certain direction – it’s cheaper and easier to buy futures contracts instead. They can also reduce the need to liquidate large positions, by “insuring” them at a relatively low cost.

However, here’s what has me worried: with derivatives, it is not very costly to accumulate large enough a position to benefit from sharp moves. It is conceivable that a speculator could accumulate a ton of puts, and then attack the bitcoin blockchain. The potential profit from the derivatives position from a sharp plunge in price could outweigh the cost of the attack.

And, I am not yet convinced by the increased liquidity argument. It could reduce volatility, but it could also increase it by encouraging speculative positions. That seems to be the PBoC’s position, that “fake” volumes are not good for the market nor for its investors.

As always, time will tell. And no doubt, other factors will throw in additional complications. Attributing changes in trends to any one announcement, in bitcoin as in life, tends to miss the bigger picture.

 

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