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Why Nasdaq, CME, Cboe all want in on bitcoin futures

On Oct. 31, CME Group announced its intention to launch bitcoin futures, and the price of bitcoin jumped immediately. If the Chicago Mercantile Exchange is getting in, the broad reasoning went, it’s good for bitcoin.

Fast forward just one month: the bitcoin derivatives race is on, and it’s a lot bigger than just CME. The CFTC (Commodity Futures Trading Commission) has approved both CME and Cboe (Chicago Board Options Exchange) to launch bitcoin futures, and Nasdaq, too, wants to do it. Cantor Fitzgerald, on its Cantor Exchange, is also planning to certify bitcoin options. And LedgerX, which matches bitcoin options (but not futures) for institutional investors, got CFTC approval in July and is up and running. Last month, LedgerX matched an option for bitcoin at $10,000 that is good until the end of 2018, for a fee of $2,250. It was the first bitcoin one-year option trade.

Cboe had actually announced back in August that it partnered up with Gemini, the bitcoin exchange of the Winklevoss brothers, with plans to launch bitcoin futures. The news didn’t quite get the loud reception that CME’s October announcement prompted.

Cboe will set its futures prices based on Gemini. CME will set its prices according to an index calculated based on four leading bitcoin exchanges: Bitstamp, GDAX (from Coinbase), itBit, and Kraken.

It all starts on Dec. 10, when Cboe will launch its futures, beating CME Group to market by eight days. CME will begin its trading on Dec. 18. (Note: Most of these derivatives platforms will only be for institutional investors, like hedge funds and banks, or individuals with millions in net worth; so how can you, a regular solo investor who wants to buy some bitcoin, get in? Here’s how.)

The price of bitcoin in 2017, through Dec. 5
The price of bitcoin in 2017, through Dec. 5

Fools rush in?

The entrance of mainstream exchanges to the crypto trading world will bring institutional investors and Wall Street types. That’s exciting to many. As CoinDesk puts it, derivatives trading will bring to bitcoin a “new kind of whale.”

CME chairman and CEO Terry Duffy explained CME’s reasoning thusly on CNBC: “You can’t ignore the fact that this is becoming more and more of a story that won’t go away, by mainstream companies that want to have access to this product.” And Cboe CEO Ed Tilly put it similarly, pointing to red-hot interest in bitcoin as the impetus: “Given the unprecedented interest in bitcoin, it’s vital we provide clients the trading tools to help them express their views and hedge their exposure,” says Tilly.

In other words, bitcoin is trending, and Big Finance is rushing in.

LedgerX Co-founder and President Juthica Chou, a former Goldman Sachs trader, says regulated options trading, “gives the guarantee and the safety that the bitcoin ecosystem really needs, especially for institutional involvement. There was never really a way to bet against bitcoin or to hedge that downside risk.”

Indeed, bitcoin options and futures also bring the first real chance to short bitcoin, since you could bet on the price going down. But for bitcoin purists, that’s alarming, and a potential danger to the bitcoin price. (Could bitcoin be the next big short?)

There’s also an obvious irony to mainstream financial exchanges like Nasdaq and CME getting in at the same time as big Wall Street names like Warren Buffett, Ray Dalio, Jamie Dimon, Carl Icahn, and Randal Quarles dismiss bitcoin as a bubble or, worse, a fraud.

CME, Cboe, Nasdaq, and Cantor Fitzgerald believe otherwise. And in two weeks, we’ll begin to see the effect of their noisy entrance into bitcoin.

Disclosure: The author owns less than 1 bitcoin, purchased in 2015 for reporting purposes.

Daniel Roberts covers bitcoin and blockchain at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.

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