Cryptocurrency & Blockchain Business

Futures: Bitcoin is just the beginning

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Clients are inquiring about Litecoin and Ripple futures, Wedbush executive says

Bitcoin futures made their debut more than two months ago. Amid a sea of critics, the market has avoided controversies and perhaps conferred a modicum of legitimacy on cryptocurrencies.

Now, over the early hump, it’s fair to say acceptance is growing: Volatility, while still elevated, has moderated somewhat, and the outlook is brighter. And for one of Wall Street’s biggest players, the bitcoin futures market may be just the opening act.

Bob Fitzsimmons, managing director and head of Wedbush Futures, spent decades in the trading pits focusing on traditional futures and options products, like fixed-income options. Now as he oversees the bitcoin-futures arm of Wedbush Securities, he has an upbeat outlook — perhaps surprisingly so, to some — for the digital-currency market.

“Clients are asking, ‘when is Litecoin, when is Ripple,’” Fitzsimmons told MarketWatch in a phone interview.

If the former pit trader’s predictions are accurate, the next step for cryptocurrencies is new coins being rolled out on the CME Group Inc. XBTH8, +3.58%   and Cboe Global Markets Inc. BTCH8, +4.78%   platforms, and possibly exchanges linked to physical delivery of digital assets, rather than cash-settled trading. Trading on bitcoin futures kicked off on both platforms in December. 

What Fitzsimmons describes as success for futures trading on the commodities platforms may not have appeared that way initially to skeptics.

Early on it looked as though the naysayers were right. When the Cboe cash-settled bitcoin futures market unfurled, it created a number of anomalies and concerns. Initially, with just the Cboe market operating, there was a hefty premium between spot bitcoin and futures — the difference between the futures and cash market — which critics of the futures marked labeled as a fundamental concern for trading a futures contract with such a volatile underlying asset.

“The launch reminds me of the U.S. Treasury market in the 1970s,” Fitzsimmons said.

Fitzsimmons, grew up in New York, graduated from Harvard University in 1984 with a degree in economics, and after some persuasion from his friends, he packed his bags for Chicago. The 1980s were a time when financial futures markets were in their ascendancy. “Interest rates were falling and the pits were a frenzy,” he reminisced.

Bitcoin, which rocketed to a record value around $20,000 a unit in late December, has attracted legions of skeptics, with the entry of a futures market for the digital asset only igniting a flurry of questions about the legitimacy of the nascent asset class.

For instance, how can a futures market track an underlying asset that trades on multiple exchanges? And how can a regulated futures market reflect an unregulated market?

Of primary importance to bitcoin futures platforms at the start was eliminating or minimizing the arbitrage, or difference between prices of bitcoin on the CME and Cboe and at other virtual-currency exchanges.

At one point in early trade, the premium, or spread, between the January contract for the Cboe -listed bitcoin futures reached $1,400 versus the spot market, Fitzsimmons said.

Now, with contracts on both the CME and Cboe up and running, spreads have tightened, reducing arbitrage and market inefficiencies. Market participants aren’t limited to those looking to expose holes between the futures and the cash market.

While volumes are minuscule compared with other futures products, Fitzsimmons said trading on the exchanges remains “healthy” when you compare them with early trading in Cboe Volatility Index VIX, +17.66%  futures in the early 1990s. The VIX, otherwise known as Wall Street’s “fear index” uses options on the S&P 500 indexSPX, -1.27% to reflect implied volatility in the market and has become one of the exchange’s most popular products.

As one of the major participants in the bitcoin market, Wedbush Futures says it has no shortage of investors knocking on their door asking about cryptocurrencies.

Trading in decentralized, permissionless currency (a permissionless currency refers to one that doesn’t restrict its access to the publicly distributed ledger that underpins it, while the term “decentralized” means an intermediary, like a bank or government) created by computer coders and without a government backing may not be how Fitzsimmons thought the futures market would evolve some four decades ago. However, he said there are signs that Wall Street’s current dalliance in cryptos futures is more than just fleeting.

Anecdotally, Fitzsimmons points to the number of tech-savvy Ph.D. graduates from the likes of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology lining up to enter the digital-asset industry as evidence of its upbeat prospects.

“Back then [1985] the prototypical floor guy was an Ivy League athlete. Today it’s a quant guy with his own algorithm that can beat the market,” Fitzsimmons said, referring to the old profile of futures traders.

Fitzsimmons didn’t disclose how big Wedbush’s footprint is in the bitcoin futures market, but he did say they were “a chunky part of the market.”

For reference, on Feb. 27, there were 5,338 open contracts on the March Cboe exchange with total daily volume of 3,010 contracts. Each contract is worth one bitcoin, compared to five on the CME exchange, meaning Feb. 27 daily volume was just over $30 million.


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