Still elsewhere, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, in a footnote, quoted me saying "Just because you mumble the word 'blockchain' doesn't make otherwise illegal things legal," which I hope is now an official CFTC position. And here is Tyler Cowen on bitcoin volatility and Siegel's paradox: "Volatility is a feature of Bitcoin, not a bug, and that is in part for reasons that have nothing to do with speculation or bubbliness, but rather follow from the contours of the utility function." And: "No, a Guy Didn't Scam $1 Million by Selling Chuck E. Cheese Tokens as Bitcoins."
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The idea is simple; if the future is trading above the underlying asset (Bitcoin) today, we buy the asset and sell the future, thus receiving cash and locking in a profit. Then on the delivery date, we sell the bitcoin to cover the costs of settling the futures contract. For the deal to be profitable, the price difference has to be large enough to cover interest between today and the delivery date as well as all costs fees.
A Bitcoin (spot or futures) exchange (like any online trading firm) charges its clients a fee to carry out trading activities. As exchanges face the risk of hacking and theft, it is wise not to trust an exchange with all your coins. You should split and keep part of them in other devices or cold storage. Now with bitcoin futures being offered by some of the most prominent marketplaces, investors, traders and speculators are all bound to benefit. These centralized marketplaces will facilitate trade based on a trader’s outlook for bitcoin prices, gain exposure to bitcoin prices or hedge their existing bitcoin positions. Overall, the launching of bitcoin futures by Cboe and CME will facilitate price discovery and price transparency, enable risk-management via a regulated bitcoin product and give a further push to bitcoin as an accepted asset class. (For more, see: The Risks Of Buying Bitcoins.)
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There are two USA regulated Bitcoin futures exchanges in operation. The CME’s contract unit is five Bitcoins whereas the Cboe’s contract unit is one—that’s the biggest difference between these futures. The upfront money to buy or sell short a CME contract will be about five times higher than the Cboe contract. Larger investors won’t care but this will be an issue for smaller investors. Another difference is the spot/settlement process that the exchanges use. In the case of Cboe futures, the contracts will be settled to a 4 pm ET Gemini exchange auction price on the day of expiration, for the CME futures the settlement price is a complex calculation using an hour of volume weighted data from multiple exchanges (currently Bitstamp, itBit, Kraken, and GDAX). With the CME’s approach, it will be harder to manipulate the settlement price but it doesn’t give arbitrageurs a physical mechanism to trade their positions—possibly an issue.
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The existence of market makers (e.g., Virtu Financial) refutes a common assertion about futures—that there‘s always a loser for every winner, that it’s a zero-sum game. It’s true that derivatives like stock options and futures are created in matched pairs—a long and a short contract. If two speculators own those two contracts the profits on one side are offset by losses on the other but market makers are not speculators. In general, they’re not betting on the direction of the market. They act as intermediaries, selling to buyers at the higher ask price and buying from sellers at the lower bid price— collecting the difference.
There's a lot of ins and outs which can get confusing in arbitrage trading. We won't go into the technicals of why futures contracts trade at a premium to spot price. You can read a full explanation here. If it's not of interest to you, all you need to know is that there's a tendency, the further out in time the futures contract expires, for the premium to spot to be higher and higher in nominal percentage terms.