Bitcoin futures and the meaning of finance – how did we get here?

Photo by Brandon Morgan on Unsplash
Photo by Brandon Morgan on Unsplash

One outstanding note in the cacophony of the bitcoin futures debate is an intriguing claim that I confess I didn’t understand at first: that bitcoin has no “natural sellers”. What’s unnatural, I thought, about people wanting to sell to realize profits? It turns out that’s not what the phrase means.

It means that nobody needs bitcoin. So why hedge it?

To go deeper, let’s look at why capital markets exist. They were developed to enable firms to raise money outside of bank loans. Bonds and equities pair those that need funds with investors who want a return.

Derivative markets emerged to protect cash flows. This both gives producers more security, and helps to raise funds – investors are more likely to “lend” to a company with protected income than to one subject to the vagaries of nature.

In essence, capital markets exist to help businesses flourish. Old-school capitalism.

Here’s where the “natural seller” part becomes important.

Farmers need to sell wheat. It’s what they do. Oil producers need to sell oil. Steel manufacturers need to sell steel. Gold miners need to sell gold. So, they all should protect those sales in the derivative markets.

No-one needs to sell bitcoin.

So what income flows are the derivatives protecting? Mutual fund redemptions, maybe. Pension plan payouts. But do we really think that mutual funds and pension plans should have significant exposure to bitcoin?

This question is important for whatever side of the bitcoin debate you’re on. If you’re a sceptic and think that it’s all a ponzi scheme, surely you don’t want institutional funds heavily invested in an asset that will no doubt crash. If you’re a bitcoin believer, do you really want the “money of the future” stuck in funds? Where’s the decentralizing potential in that?

So, it could be that the constructive purpose of bitcoin derivatives is to protect flows for funds that are either taking irrational risks or hijacking the finance of tomorrow. This is a far cry from ensuring that farmers can make a living and oil producers don’t go bust.

We could argue that all this started to go awry back in the ‘80s with the creation of synthetic derivatives that had as their sole aim to make a profit at the expense of others (trading being a zero-sum game). We could also argue that back then we got ahead of ourselves by letting markets run far ahead of the infrastructure. We know what happened next. (Ok, I’m simplifying, but the point still holds.)

And we could ask ourselves what good bitcoin futures will do the economy as a whole. To what productive use will their markets contribute? Are they adding stability, as per the original intent of derivatives? Or could they be adding yet another layer of complexity that masks a deepening fragility?

Of course, playing the long game, this could be what true bitcoin believers have known would happen all along. That the world will see (again) how unstable the current financial system is. And to what will people turn when widening cracks send central banks scrambling?

True, the bitcoin price would also likely tumble. But the technology would still work. People would still be able to independently transfer funds. And the advantage to having an alternative to an interconnected and unstable system would become more apparent than ever.

The threat of bitcoin futures

photo by Jesse Bowser on Unsplash
photo by Jesse Bowser on Unsplash

The financial press has been in a flutter of excitement over the launch of bitcoin futures trading on not one but two reputable, regulated and liquid exchanges: CME and Cboe.

CME Group (Chicago Mercantile Exchange) is the largest derivatives exchange in the world, as well as one of the oldest, with roots going back to the 19th century. It will launch bitcoin futures trading on December 18th.

Cboe Global Markets owns the Chicago Board Options Exchange (the largest US options exchange) and BATS Global Markets (the platform on which the Gemini-backed bitcoin ETF would have been listed had it been approved). It plans to beat CME to the punch by launching bitcoin futures trading on December 10th.

In theory this opens the doors to institutional and retail investors who want exposure to bitcoin but for some reason (such as internal rules, or an aversion to risky and complicated bitcoin exchanges and wallets) can’t trade actual bitcoin.

And that expected flood of interest is, from what I hear, part of the reason that bitcoin’s price recently shot past $11,000 (which, considering it started the year at $1,000, is phenomenal).

I’m missing something. I don’t understand why the market thinks there will be a huge demand for bitcoin itself as a result of futures trading.

First, a brief primer on how futures work: let’s say that I think that the price of xyz, which is currently trading at $50, will go up to $100 in two months. Someone offers me the chance to commit to paying $80 for xyz in two months’ time. I accept, which means that I’ve just “bought” a futures contract. If I’m right, I’ll be paying $80 for something that’s worth $100. If I’m wrong, and the price is lower, then I’ll be paying more than it’s worth in the market, and I will not be happy.

Alternatively, if I think that xyz is going to go down in price, I can “sell” a futures contract: I commit to delivering an xyz in two months’ time for a set price, say $80. When the contract is up, I buy an xyz at the market price, and deliver it to the contract holder in return for the promised amount. If I’m right and the market price is lower than $80, I’ve made a profit.

Beyond this basic premise there are all sorts of hybrid strategies that involve holding the underlying asset and hedging: for instance, I hold xyz and sell a futures contract (I commit to selling) at a higher price. If the price goes up, I make money on the underlying asset but lose on the futures contract, and if it goes down the situation is reversed. Another common strategy involves simultaneously buying and selling futures contracts to “lock in” a price.

Futures contracts currently exist for a vast range of commodities and financial instruments, with different terms and conditions. It’s a complex field that moves a lot of money. The futures market for gold is almost 10x the size (measuring the underlying asset of the contracts) of the physical gold market.

How can this be? How can you have more futures contracts for gold than actual gold? Because you don’t have to deliver an actual bar of gold when the contract matures. Many futures contracts settle on a “cash” basis – instead of physical delivery for the sale, the buyer receives the difference between the futures price (= the agreed-upon price) and the spot (= market) price. If the aforementioned xyz contract were on a cash settlement basis and the market price was $100 at the end of two months (as I had predicted), instead of an xyz, I would receive $20 (the difference between the $100 market price and the $80 that I committed to pay).

Both the CME and the Cboe futures settle in cash, not in actual bitcoin. Just imagine the legal and logistical hassle if two reputable and regulated exchanges had to set up custodial wallets, with all the security that would entail.

So, it’s likely that the bitcoin futures market will end up being even larger than the actual bitcoin market. That’s important.

Why? Because institutional investors will like that. Size and liquidity make fund managers feel less stressed than usual.

The bitcoin market seems to be excited at all the institutional money that will come pouring into bitcoin as a result of futures trading. That’s the part I don’t understand.

It’s true that the possibility of getting exposure to this mysterious asset that is producing outstanding returns on a regulated and liquid exchange will no doubt entice serious money to take a bitcoin punt. Many funds that are by charter prohibited from dealing in “alternative assets” on unregulated exchanges will now be able to participate. And the opportunity to leverage positions (get even more exposure than the money you’re putting in would normally warrant) to magnify the already outrageous returns will almost certainly attract funds that need the extra edge.

But here’s the thing: the money will not be pouring into the bitcoin market. It will be buying synthetic derivatives, that don’t directly impact bitcoin at all. For every $100 million (or whatever) that supermegahedgefundX puts into bitcoin futures, no extra money goes into bitcoin itself. These futures do not require ownership of actual bitcoins, not even on contract maturity.

Sure, many will argue that more funds will be interested in holding actual bitcoins now that they can hedge those positions. If supermegahedgefundX can offset any potential losses with futures trading, then maybe it will be more willing to buy bitcoin – although why it would allow its potential gains to be reduced with the same futures trade is beyond me. And, why hold the bitcoin when you can get similar profits with less initial outlay just by trading the synthetic derivatives?

That’s the part that most worries me. Why buy bitcoin when you can go long a futures contract? Or a combination of futures contracts that either exaggerates your potential gains or limits your potential loss? In other words, I’m concerned that institutional investors that would have purchased bitcoin for its potential gains will now just head to the futures market. Cleaner, cheaper, safer and more regulated.

So, if the market is discounting an inflow of institutional funds into actual bitcoins, it’s likely to be disappointed.

What worries me even more is the possibility that the institutional funds that have already bought bitcoin (and pushed the price up to current levels) will decide that the official futures market is safer. And they will sell.

Now, it’s possible that the demand for bitcoin futures and the general optimism that seems prevalent in the sector will push up futures prices (in other words, there will be more demand for contracts that commit to buying bitcoin at $20,000 in a year’s time than those that commit to buying at $12,000 – I know, but the market is strange). This will most likely influence the actual market price (“hey, the futures market knows something we don’t, right?”).

And the launch of liquid futures exchanges increases the likelihood of a bitcoin ETF being approved by the SEC in the near future. That would bring a lot of money into an already crowded space.

Buuuut… it’s also possible that the institutional investors that are negative on bitcoin’s prospects (and there’s no shortage of those) may use the futures markets to put money behind their conviction. It’s much easier to sell a futures contract with a lower-than-market price than it is to actually short bitcoin. These investors may well send signals to the actual bitcoin market that sends prices tumbling.

And the leverage inherent in futures contracts, especially those that settle for cash, could increase the volatility in a downturn.

That’s pretty scary.

Let’s not even go into the paradigm shift that this development implies. The growth of a bitcoin futures market positions it even more as a commodity than a currency (in the US, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission regulates futures markets). And even more as an investment asset than a technology that has the potential to change the plumbing of finance.

So, while the market appears to be greeting the launch of not one but two bitcoin futures exchanges in the next two weeks (with two more potentially important ones on the near horizon) with ebullience, we really should be regarding this development as the end of the beginning.

And the beginning of a new path.