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Intense price swings in cryptocurrencies are luring the highest-volume traders on Wall Street as they search for relief from the low volatility blanketing financial markets.
Proprietary trading firms, which bet their own capital in markets from stocks to futures, are wading into bitcoin, ethereum and other cryptocurrencies better known as a playground for small speculators and a haven for money-laundering.
DRW of Chicago, one of the world's largest proprietary trading companies, has led the charge. About a dozen of its more than 800 employees buy and sell bitcoin at a subsidiary named Cumberland Mining, which was established in 2014.
Other firms have followed, including Jump Trading, DV Trading and Hehmeyer Trading + Investments, according to industry executives. At a trading industry conference in Chicago last week, a standing-room-only crowd massed for a panel on cryptocurrencies.
"The volatility in asset classes is at all-time historic lows — everywhere except for cryptocurrencies. So there's obviously a lot of interest in this space," said Garrett See, chief executive of DV Chain, which DV Trading launched as a cryptocurrency affiliate last year.
Even as the stock market crests to record highs, it has notched few daily moves of more than 1 per cent. By contrast, bitcoin, the most widely owned cryptocurrency market, was up nearly 6 per cent on Friday to more than $6,000.
Proprietary trading firms are jumping in ahead of banks, as the estimated value of all cryptocurrencies soars above $170bn.
Such firms are renowned as high-frequency traders, using computing firepower and telecommunications hardware to execute deals in millionths of a second. But in cryptocurrency, they are conducting many of their trades with tools such as email, Skype and phones.
Cryptocurrencies are digital assets that can be used to transfer value from one person to another, secured by cryptography. The controversial technology has struggled to gain traction among established financial firms. Last month Jamie Dimon, chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, dismissed bitcoin as a "fraud" that was "stupid" to trade.
Some proprietary groups said they refused to trade the products until they were listed on established, regulated exchanges.
Scepticism has not dissuaded some hedge funds, family investment offices and wealthy individuals from getting in on the land rush. Proprietary firms make markets for these investors, while also amassing large coin inventories themselves.
"The flavour of the counterparties has definitely shifted pretty dramatically in the last year," said Don Wilson, DRW chief executive.
DRW has long-term holdings of cryptocurrencies, giving it stocks to be able sell to buyers. In March 2015, it bought 27,000 bitcoins that the US government had confiscated in a case involving a drug marketplace called Silk Road, according to a report by Coindesk. Worth $7.6m at the time of the auction, the sum would now be valued at about $160m.
Jump Trading declined to comment on its trading activities.
Hehmeyer, led by a longtime Chicago futures executive Chris Hehmeyer, was advertising a job opening for a "crypto trade engineer" who has a "passion for cryptocurrencies and the role they play in global markets".
"It is exploding," Mr Hehmeyer said. "It's a rapidly growing set of instruments, unlike anything we have ever seen. There are risks but we are cautiously in."