Trader Talk

The bitcoin futures race is on

Key Points
  • The CBOE, CME and Nadsaq are all preparing bitcoin futures trading.
  • CBOE will be the first, beginning bitcoin futures trading on December 10.
  • Futures trading in the cryptocurrency may make a bitcoin ETF a possibility.
Photo illustration of Bitfinex cryptocurrency exchange website.
Dado Ruvic | Illustration | Reuters

The race to get bitcoin futures is now on. The CBOE announced Monday it would begin trading bitcoin futures on Sunday evening at the start of global trading hours.

The first full day of trading would be on Monday, Dec. 11. That would beat the CME, which has announced it, too, will begin trading bitcoin futures on Dec. 18, a week later, and the Nasdaq, which is also planning to introduce futures trading in the first half of 2018.

Bitcoin enthusiasts are hopeful that a bitcoin ETF might be coming. The SEC denied applications to start bitcoin ETFs earlier in the year on the grounds that the cryptocurrency was "unregulated," but CBOE head Ed Tilly said he plans to reapply with the SEC for a bitcoin ETF.

The argument seems to be a simple one. The presence of a futures market will demonstrate that the cryptocurrency is sufficiently "regulated" to allow ETFs to start.

The argument may be helped by two features that will be a part of the bitcoin futures: price limits and margin rates.

The CBOE and CME will have margin rates of 30 percent and 35 percent, respectively.

In addition to being able to short bitcoin, there's considerable speculation about whether futures will lower or increase the volatility level of bitcoin. The CME, for example, says it will be using price limits that kick in during gains or losses of 7 percent, 13 percent and 20 percent that would slow and in some cases halt trading. In particular, prices will not be allowed to move up or down more than 20 percent from the prior day's close. If that limit is hit, trading can only continue at or within the +/- 20 percent limit for the remainder of the trading session.

There may even be a price war developing for the business. The CBOE made a point in its press release this morning to say trading would be free through December, but doesn't say how much it would be after.

The CME says bitcoin futures will be priced at a premium to standard Equity Index futures, but in line with the pricing conventions of other premium products.