Market Insider

Bitcoin is about to join the big leagues on Wall Street, but some fear it is far from ready

Key Points
  • The first futures on cryptocurrency bitcoin begin trading Sunday night on the Cboe. While demand for the new instruments is expected, some brokers are taking it slow before offering access to clients, or adding restrictions on trading.
  • Some of the world's largest financial institutions have complained to U.S. regulators that there hasn't been enough dialogue on the potential trading impact of derivatives on the volatile and emerging cryptocurrency market.
  • Ahead of the launch, bitcoin has had an extremely volatile week, rocketing as high as $19,340, just two days after it hit $13,000 for the first time. It then plunged more than $3,000 from its peak.
Trade group issues warning about bitcoin futures launch
Trade group issues warning about bitcoin futures launch

As U.S. exchanges get set to offer bitcoin futures, some major global financial institutions feel the rollout is happening too fast, and some retail brokers say they will look hard at the new market before offering related products to customers without steep restrictions.

The first bitcoin futures product starts trading Sunday, potentially bringing an air of greater legitimacy to the cryptocurrency which has been a trading sensation around the world. For many on Wall Street, however, it is viewed as a volatile, rapidly growing, massive speculative bubble, based on a hard-to-understand quasi-currency that has not been fully embraced by the financial community or major institutions.

Cboe Global Markets is the first of three U.S. exchanges to offer futures in bitcoin, jumping a week ahead of its rival, CME, to do so. It is a so-called self-certified product, however, an exchange spokeswoman said it has vetted everything with the U.S. Commodities Futures Trading Commission "to their liking."

Ahead of the Sunday launch, bitcoin's price has been skyrocketing, surging more than $6,000 in less than two days — adding to concerns that bitcoin is going parabolic and would be an ill-suited investment for mom-and-pop investors. It was trading above $19,000 Thursday on the Coinbase exchange before falling rapidly back to $16,000.

"A number of brokers are deciding whether they want to offer trading in the futures to their clients, and if they do they are likely to put more restrictions and risk management controls on the trading," Sandler O'Neill analyst Richard Repetto said.

The concerns about the futures are both the risk stemming from the underlying market and whether the futures will be liquid enough as the market gyrates, in both directions. The futures market also offers the first real two-way market, where investors can use their brokerage accounts to short bitcoin for the first time.

The Futures Industry Association, a global organization representing 64 clearing members, sent a letter to the CFTC Wednesday voicing its concern about the volatility in the cryptocurrency market, and its concerns about the clearing firms that will be absorbing the risks in the event of a default. It said there has not been enough deliberation about margins, stress testing and trading limits.

"The industry doesn't feel that it necessarily had the opportunity to discuss the potential impact and that the proper safeguards have been put in place before the launch of the instruments. We're agnostic about the product. It really is the process we're focused on here," said Emma Davey, a spokeswoman for FIA.

Goldman Sachs said it would provide clearing services to its clients across all major futures exchanges and contracts.

"Given that this is a new product, as expected we are evaluating the specifications and risk attributes for the bitcoin futures contracts as part of our standard due diligence process," it said.

There is also strong demand and interest expected in the currency from retail, and some brokers plan to offer it once they see how it trades.

"We are waiting for the open, and we'll evaluate the marketplace at that time," said a spokeswoman for TD Ameritrade. "We'll offer these products once volumes, open interest and the marketplace meet our thresholds."

Interactive Brokers, whose chairman has warned about the dangers of bitcoin, is one of those providing access. A spokeswoman said investors will be able to trade it Monday, but there are steeper restrictions, such as no short positions and a 50 percent margin requirement.

"We'll consider the others [futures products] as they go live as well," she said.

Interactive's founder and chairman Thomas Peterffy has been an outspoken critic of tying the cryptocurrencies to the real economy.

Peterffy also warned the CFTC last month about the dangers of bitcoin in a full-page Wall Street Journal ad, but he said during an appearance on CNBC's "Fast Money" that he doesn't oppose trading it in an appropriate way.

"What I am objecting to is linking bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies by federal regulations to the real economy, which would happen if we were to clear bitcoin along with other products in the same trading house," he said at the time.

The CME, the world's largest futures exchange, will make its product available Dec. 18, and Nasdaq plans to launch its futures in the second quarter of 2018.

Ally Financial is also providing clients the ability to trade bitcoin futures, but for now it has decided to just offer the CME contracts.

Charles Schwab does not currently offer cryptocurrency trading, however, "we are actively evaluating our clients' interest in, and familiarity with, the dynamics and risks associated with cryptocurrencies," a spokesman for that firm said.

Fidelity is not currently planning to offer its clients trading in the futures contracts. There is no trading of bitcoin in its brokerage accounts, and its mutual funds do not hold digital assets.
But Fidelity account holders with Coinbase wallets can integrate that into their accounts so they can look at their balances as part of their total financial picture, a spokesman said.

"We know this is an emerging asset class, and it's going to transform our industry. It's early days," a Fidelity spokesman said.

The banking industry is moving slowly when it comes to cryptocurrencies, but it is intrigued by its underlying blockchain technology.

Richard Bove, Vertical Group banking analyst, said banks are studying ways to get involved, and BNY Mellon takes the lead with its own cryptocurrency it uses with customers.

"I think if the banks get involved, first it will be trading for third parties, not with their own money. Second, it will be to see if they can use a distributed ledger technology in a whole wide variety of payments, bank to bank, in the system," he said, "and the last step will be to accept a digital currency."

Bove said for now a digital currency does not meet the requirements to consider it a currency by the banking system.

"The most important [requirement] is you've got to be able in the currency to pay government debt. If you can't use the currency to pay taxes it's not a valid currency in the history of mankind, and therefore the banks are not going to jump in using bitcoin on a transactional basis," he said.

But the cryptocurrency market, which is especially active in Asia, will likely embrace the futures.

"We're talking about a futures product, so … my opinion is the bitcoin people would welcome the idea of a regulated exchange offering a listed futures on the product. They can still trade bitcoin in a structure and the way they want but I think most people believe it's going to lend some legitimacy to the underlying product," said Repetto.

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