Wall Street has taken a first step to try to reign in Bitcoin’s “Wild West” reputation.
It is rolling out a new way of trading the cryptocurrency that allows investors to bet on its future price, which is going through wild swings, using a well-known U.S. exchange.
Bitcoin futures entered their first full day of trading Monday after launching Sunday on an exchange run by CBOE Global Markets, a move analysts say could help move the mysterious and most-highly valued cryptocurrency closer to mainstream acceptance.
Bitcoin — thanks to its 1,700% gain this year, from less than $1,000 at the start of 2017 to a record high of $17,383 per coin Monday — has gained widespread notoriety among investors. The steep price run-up has prompted warnings of a speculative bubble. Many investment pros say it has many of the characteristics of prior manias, such as the tech stock exuberance in the late 1990s and the Dutch tulip craze in the 1600s.
The launch of the first Bitcoin futures exchange, which enables investors to place wagers on whether its price will rise or fall in the future, is seen as a key event that could pave the way for a more transparent market, greater oversight from exchanges and more trading activity from banks and brokers with deep pockets.
“It’s a step toward legitimacy,” says James Sinegal, an analyst at fund tracker Morningstar.
In its first day of trading, investors bid up sharply the Bitcoin futures contract that expires Dec. 17. The contract opened Sunday night at $15,000 and climbed as high as $18,850, or more than 25%.
A futures contract is a binding agreement to buy or sell an asset, such as Bitcoin or oil, at a future date at an agreed upon price.
The first day of trading saw heavy traffic, causing the CBOE’s website to experience slowdowns and brief outages. The sharp upward moves of more than 10% in the price of the December futures contract also caused trading to be temporarily halted two times, per trading rules.
A week from today, the CME Group’s Chicago Mercantile Exchange will launch its own Bitcoin futures contract.
Still, Bitcoin watchers say the fact that a reputable exchange is now allowing investors to buy and sell futures is a good thing.
Until now, investors wanting to invest in Bitcoin have had to buy actual Bitcoins on exchanges such as Coinbase. Wealthy investors have gained exposure to Bitcoin via hedge funds. Coming soon, however, will be index funds that track digital currencies like they now do with stocks, such as the already announced Bitwise HOLD 10 Private Index Fund created by Bitwise Asset Management.
“Bringing Bitcoin into a more structured, regulated and transparent environment will make it safer and easier for people to trade, more reliable and less susceptible to manipulation,” says Craig Pirrong, professor of finance at the University of Houston.
In light of the public’s rising awareness and interest in Bitcoin and other digital currencies, Jay Clayton, the chairman of the Securities & Exchange Commission, released a statement late Monday reminding investors that despite “tales of fortunes made,” Main Street investors need to keep their guard up while considering investment opportunities.
“If you choose to invest in these products, please ask questions and demand clear answers,” Clayton advised. “If an opportunity sounds too good to be true … please exercise extreme caution and be aware of the risk that your investment may be lost.”
Still, given the newness of Bitcoin, not all brokers are offering futures trading to clients quite yet.
Online broker TD Ameritrade is watching and waiting to see how the fledgling Bitcoin futures market develops.
“We are doing our due diligence,” says JB Mackenzie, managing director of futures and forex trading at TD Ameritrade.
Mackenize recommends a “wait-and-see approach” for mom-and-pop investors before they decide to invest in Bitcoin through the futures market or other means.
“That’s a very prudent approach,” he says.