Prof. Jayanth R. Varma’s Financial Markets Blog

A blog on financial markets and their regulation (currently suspended)

Bitcoin and bitcoin futures

After bitcoin futures started trading a week ago, there has been a lot of discussion about how the futures market might affect the spot price of bitcoin. Almost a decade ago, Paul Krugman discussed this question in the context of a different asset – crude oil – and gave a simple answer:

“Well, a futures contract is a bet about the future price. It has no, zero, nada direct effect on the spot price.”

Krugman explained this with a direct example:

Imagine that Joe Shmoe and Harriet Who, neither of whom has any direct involvement in the production of oil, make a bet: Joe says oil is going to $150, Harriet says it won’t. What direct effect does this have on the spot price of oil – the actual price people pay to have a barrel of black gunk delivered?

The answer, surely, is none. Who cares what bets people not involved in buying or selling the stuff make? And if there are 10 million Joe Shmoes, it still doesn’t make any difference.

Back then, I argued in my blog post that Krugman’s analysis is quite valid for most assets, but needed to be taken with a pinch of salt in the case of assets like crude oil, where the market for physical crude oil is so fragmented and hard to access that:

Most price discovery actually happens in the futures market and the physical markets trade on this basis. In an important sense, the crude futures price is the price of crude.

Is bitcoin like crude oil or is it an asset with a well functioning spot market where the Krugman analysis is right, and the futures speculation is largely irrelevant? The cash market for bitcoin has some difficulties – the bitcoin exchanges are not too reliable, and many investors find it hard to keep their wallets and their private keys safe. Are these difficulties as great as the difficulty of buying a barrel of crude, or selling it?

When cash markets are not functioning well, cash and carry arbitrage (and its reverse) futures markets may make the underlying asset accessible to more people. It is possible that A is bullish on bitcoin, but does not wish to go through the hassles of creating a wallet and storing it safely. At the same time, B might be comfortable with bitcoin wallets, but might be unwilling to take bitcoin price risk. Then B can buy bitcoin spot and sell cash settled bitcoin futures to A; the result is that A obtains exposure to bitcoin without creating a bitcoin wallet, while B obtains a risk free investment (a synthetic T-bill). Similarly, suppose C wishes to bet against bitcoin, but does not have the ability to short it; while D has no views on bitcoin, but has sufficient access to the cash market to be able to short bitcoin. Then D can take a risk free position by shorting bitcoin in the cash market and buying bitcoin futures from C who obtains a previously unavailable short position.

When there are many pairs of people like A/B and many pairs like C/D; the creation of the futures market allows A’s demand and B’s supply to be reflected in the cash market. If there are more A/B pairs than C/D pairs, the introduction of bitcoin future would push up the spot price of bitcoin. The reverse would be the case if the C/D pairs outweigh the A/B pairs. If there are roughly equal number of A’s and C’s, then they can simply trade with each other (Krugman’s side bets) with no impact on the cash market.

It appears to me that the introduction of futures has been bullish for bitcoin because there are quite many A/B pairs. There are significantly fewer C/D pairs for two reasons:

  1. There are not too many C’s though there are plenty of people who think that bitcoin is a bubble. Smart investors rarely short a bubble: there is too high a risk of the bubble inflating even further before collapsing completely. As Keynes famously wrote, the market can remain irrational longer than you can remain solvent. The most sensible thing to do for those who see a bubble is to simply stay clear of the asset.

  2. There are not too many D’s because it is not easy to borrow bitcoin for shorting it. A large fraction of the bitcoin supply is in the hands of early investors who are ideologically committed to bitcoins, and have little interest in parting with it. (In fact, bitcoin is so volatile that the most sensible strategy for those who believe in the bitcoin dream is to invest only what they can afford to lose, and then adopt a buy and hold strategy). Moreover, lending bitcoin requires reposing faith in mainstream finance (even if the borrower is willing to deposit 200% or 300% margins), and that trust is in short supply among those who were early investors in bitcoins.

The situation could change over a period of time if the futures market succeeds in moving a large part of the bitcoin supply into the hands of mainstream investors (the A’s) who have no commitment to the bitcoin ideology.

9 responses to “Bitcoin and bitcoin futures

  1. Sameer Garg December 17, 2017 at 4:40 pm

    And if there are 10 million Joe Shmoes, it still doesn’t make any difference.

    ^^ Krugman is quite wrong here. Derivatives market positioning can have a telling impact on price action of the underlying. Sure, the effect is ‘temporary’, but tell that to the trader who was forced to stop loss-sell because a stock opened 3% lower on the back of some news, and then went another 10% because it was options expiry day and the 2% downside puts had a lot of open interest.

  2. Anand December 17, 2017 at 9:52 pm

    Prof. Thank you for the Bit coin blog.
    We are aware, Oil / commodity trading is consumption / demand – supply driven price discovery in the market.
    Official Currency backed by central banks are traded up/down based on specific metrics.
    Bit coin / digital crypto currency is very opaque!
    Will the supply of Bit Coin increase with increase in demand?

  3. vikramml December 17, 2017 at 11:29 pm

    Another factor is volume in spot vs futures markets. Like gold, the futures market can get bigger than the spot markets for bitcoin. In which case the futures market might well dominate the spot market. Especially for something that does not have a fair value based on economics, again, like gold.

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