NYSE files to list bitcoin ETFs, bringing cryptocurrency a step closer to mainstream

Key Points
  • The NYSE formally files with the Securities and Exchange Commission to list two ProShares bitcoin ETFs.
  • Brown Brothers Harriman would be custodian to the funds, which will track bitcoin futures.
  • Futures trading and now, possibly, ETFs, are boosting bitcoin's profile.
NYSE parent ICE files for bitcoin ETF
NYSE parent ICE files for bitcoin ETF

A bitcoin ETF took another step closer to reality after the NYSE filed with the SEC to list two funds tracking bitcoin futures.

The NYSE wants to list the ProShares Bitcoin ETF and the ProShares Short Bitcoin ETF, two exchange-traded funds that would allow traders to bet on how the volatile cryptocurrency futures contracts will perform. ProShares, which has more than $29 billion in assets under management, filed its own documents with the SEC for the two bitcoin ETFs in September.

The funds would track either the Cboe or CME bitcoin futures and would invest their assets in benchmark futures contracts with the option of investing in contracts outside the benchmark.

As custodian for the funds, Brown Brothers Harriman would oversee investment assets and cash equivalents as well as prepare and make regulatory filings. Marc Chandler and Win Thin, two of the bank's foreign exchange strategists, are widely followed among currency brokers.

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Recent developments have been boosting the profile of bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, which are unregulated and highly volatile. Futures began trading this month, believed to be a way to draw professional investors and oversight. An ETF product would add further legitimacy.

"It's very hard for us, as currency analysts, to follow this," said Thin, who is Brown Brothers' global head of emerging markets strategy. "It represents further mainstreaming. Hopefully that what comes out of this: some more regulatory oversight."

"Beyond that, we don't have any calls on where it will go from here."

Despite bitcoin's notorious volatility, the cryptocurrency has soared nearly 2,000 percent in the past year, according to Coinbase. Cboe futures were down 3.6 percent Wednesday.

Like other ETFs, investors in the ProShares Bitcoin ETF would reap benefits when the value of futures contracts climbs.

"By being long Bitcoin Futures Contracts, the Fund seeks to benefit from daily increases in the price of the Bitcoin Futures Contracts," according to the SEC filing. "The Fund will not be benchmarked to the current price of bitcoin and will not invest directly in bitcoin. When the price of Bitcoin Futures Contracts held by the Fund declines, the Fund will lose value."

On the other hand, investors in the ProShares Short Bitcoin ETF would benefit when the daily value of the futures falls and, like the first fund, would not be directly invested in bitcoin.

Bitcoin fans have long wanted an ETF for the digital currency without much success. But turning that dream into reality appeared to become much more likely after two of the world's largest options exchanges — Cboe and CME — launched bitcoin futures contracts within the past month.

"I think it is going to enable finally the approval of bitcoin ETFs, and other digital currency ETFs, which is game changing," Barry Silbert, founder and CEO of Digital Currency Group, said on CNBC's "Squawk Box" earlier this month.

— CNBC's Evelyn Cheng contributed to this report.