Is bitcoin growing up?


As the cryptocurrency has surged in value, bigger investors, from trading firms to hedge funds, have increasingly turned to exchanges regulated in traditional financial centres. They are buying bitcoin futures to gain exposure to the asset while avoiding the hacks and heists that plague the industry.

LONDON: When bitcoin was born it was a symbol of counterculture, a rebel currency with near-anonymity and a lack of regulation. A decade later, there are growing signs it’s entering the establishment its creators sought to subvert.

As the cryptocurrency has surged in value, bigger investors, from trading firms to hedge funds, have increasingly turned to exchanges regulated in traditional financial centres. They are buying bitcoin futures to gain exposure to the asset while avoiding the hacks and heists that plague the industry.

The crypto market, associated by many with the dark web, money laundering and the Wild West, is beginning to be discussed by financiers in the same breath as derivatives, hedging instruments and compliance.

Investors ploughed record levels of money into bitcoin futures at regulated exchanges in the United States and Britain last month, hungry for a piece of the action but seeking the kind of protection that will satisfy their compliance officers.

Between March and May, bitcoin more than doubled in price, an ascent peppered by double-digit price swings reminiscent of its 2017 bubble, which was driven by smaller retail investors.

During that period, Chicago-based CME Group Inc’s average daily volumes of futures contracts climbed over seven-fold to a record US$508mil in May.

The number of open interest contracts – those that haven’t been settled – also hit a record.

CME said bitcoin’s price gains, and the subsequent increase in volatility, attracted new investors seeking to hedge risk.

Crypto Facilities, a London-registered platform bought this year for over US$100mil by major US cryptocurrency exchange Kraken, said bitcoin futures daily trading volumes jumped over three-fold from March to a record US$84mil in May.

In a sign of the growing mainstream market, the owner of the New York Stock Exchange, Intercontinental Exchange Inc plans to offer bitcoin futures in the coming months through a new crypto-trading platform, Bakkt.“It’s logical they (institutional investors) would want to be moving in this direction, especially considering their size and how much more there is at stake,” said Joel Kruger, currency strategist at LMAX Exchange Group.

Futures – financial contracts that lock buyers and sellers into trading an asset at a set date and price – are seen as key components of any mature market, as they boost market liquidity and allow investors to bet on the direction of prices.

“It’s a useful hedging instrument,” said Daniel Matuszewski, head of trading at Goldman Sachs-backed crypto firm Circle.

“Futures are much easier to trade, much easier to use for hedging, much easier to get leverage on.”Playing out in the spiking demand is the emergence of a twin-track global bitcoin futures market - on “onshore” exchanges like CME and “offshore” exchanges, which are more lightly regulated and still command the bulk of the multi-billion-dollar daily market.

Onshore exchanges – those regulated in established financial centres – are usually subject to strict checks on governance, technology and client vetting. They demand a high degree of transparency.

Offshore platforms, in contrast, are typically registered in jurisdictions with less onerous rules. They tend to accept business from investors who can sign up with few checks on their identity or the provenance of their funds. — Reuters


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