Will bitcoin futures trading buy more acceptance?

Last Updated Dec 11, 2017 4:14 PM EST

All eyes in the bitcoin world are on the launch of futures contracts that let investors bet on the direction of the often-volatile cryptocurrency market. Demand for the first contracts offered Sunday evening by CBOE Global Markets was so strong that the company's website reportedly crashed. 

Trading in bitcoin futures declined slightly Monday from their overnight high following the virtual currency's debut Sunday on the Chicago Board Options Exchange. The contract that expires in January was trading at $18,250. After opening at $15,000, the price had risen as high as $18,850, according to data from the CBOE.   

CBOE's larger rival, CME Group, plans a rival product starting on Dec. 18, followed by others from Cantor Fitzgerald and Nasdaq.

Walter Lukken, president of the Futures Industry Association, a trade group representing exchanges and financial services firms, raised concerns about bitcoin futures. He argued in an open letter to the Commodities Futures Trade Commission, released last week, that the market for the cryptocurrency remains opaque and is prone to manipulation. In response, the CBOE defended its bitcoin contract, saying it was developed in close consultation with regulators.

The arrival of futures could be a watershed moment for the cryptocurrency, whose prices have posted an eye-popping gain of more than 1,500 percent since the start of the year. The result is a market value that exceeds that of such venerable banks as Goldman Sachs (GS) and the GDPs of countries such as New Zealand. Futures also may help bring stability to the market, even though the contracts will also make it easier for traders to sell the digital money short, or bet that its price will fall. 

"This product has been on such a run that shorting is a scary place to be," said Mike Belshe, CEO of BitGo, a provider of security software used in bitcoin transactions. "It will eventually be a huge stabilizer for the industry."   

Bitcoin prices topped $19,000 this week before settling down to their current level around $16,000. They started 2017 at $960, and in 2010 bitcoins changed hands for 8 cents apiece. 

For now, many of the biggest names in bitcoin are struggling to keep up with the skyrocketing demand for the cryptocurrency.  

Coinbase, the largest bitcoin exchange, has experienced service outages even though the company has "invested significant resources" this year to increase the number of transactions that it can process during peak hours by more than 40-fold, according to the company's blog. Even so, services may " "become degraded or unavailable during times of significant volatility or volume."  Bitcoin investors, for now, are undaunted by Coinbase's technical challenges. The Coinbase app has rocketed near the top of the charts in the Apple Store's rankings of free services.

Banks also are divided about bitcoin.  

Goldman Sachs, for instance, plans to help certain customers clear bitcoin futures contracts and is exploring other potential business opportunities, according to a company spokeswoman. Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein told Bloomberg he thought it was too early for the New York-based bank to have a bitcoin strategy because he didn't think the cryptocurrency was a store of value.  

Bank of America (BAC) has been interested in bitcoin and its underlying blockchain technology for years and has applied for 20 patents. The Charlotte-based bank was awarded a patent last week for a system that would allow users to convert one type of cryptocurrency into another.

Other banks such as Wells Fargo (WFC) are staying on the sidelines. According to a spokesman for the San Francisco-based bank, it won't recommend or facilitate the purchase of cryptocurrencies, won't accept them as collateral for a loan or deposit them into any accounts.

Media reports indicated that JPMorgan (JPM), whose CEO Jamie Dimon has denounced bitcoin as a fraud, and Citibank (C) also aren't planning to clear or match bitcoin futures buyers and sellers together. JPMorgan didn't respond to a call for comment, and Citigroup declined to speak about bitcoin.

According to BitGo's Belshe, large banks will likely be slow to embrace bitcoin, even as other market participants such as hedge funds, asset managers and operators of investment offices for wealthy families dive right into it.

"The volume of the digital currencies is so large that it can't be ignored," he said. "It has grown so quickly that [banks] are realizing that this is something that they're going to have to figure out."

For now, fears that bitcoin is a market bubble heading for an inevitable pop are being held at bay. The Trump administration is "watching" the cryptocurrency's meteoric rise and thus far sees no cause for concern, according to White House Economic Adviser Gary Cohn.

Even if the bitcoin market does collapse, Andrew Kenningham, chief global economist at Capital Economics, doesn't think it will have any significant impact on the broader economy.  

"As with many startups, the 'true' value of bitcoin is unknown because it is unclear whether it has a long-term future," he wrote in a note to clients. "But we doubt that any cryptocurrency will become a serious rival to the dollar or other major fiat currencies, many of which have centuries of history behind them and the backing of governments and central banks. Also, technological problems, fraud or tighter regulation may undermine bitcoin."

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    Jonathan Berr is an award-winning journalist and podcaster based in New Jersey whose main focus is on business and economic issues.