Trading these futures instead of actual bitcoins is smart because you are able to access higher leverage by entering contracts with counterparties, while keeping your coins safe in cold storage or elsewhere. Additionally, unlike trading margin on Kraken or Bitfinex, you do NOT have to pay interest on the leverage you have! This is the result of the counterparty structure of futures. High leverage trading, low-fees, and high profit potential.
Assume there is 0 contracts open and 2 traders, and a new futures contract expiring in 7 days opens. You can "create" a contract by putting a limit sell order in the orderbook at a given price. If someone market buys that limit order, an open contract is created between you and the other trader. This is how you can go from a position of 0 to a negative exposure just by selling a contract.
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For example, you can enter a Bitcoin futures contract with Mortimer Duke saying that you will sell him 1 BTC on March 30, 2018, for the price of 5,000 USD per BTC. (In the actual CME futures contracts, the limit for one contract is 5 BTC, but we will stick with 1 BTC now for the purposes of easy explanation.) You enter into this contract on an exchange like CME.
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Traders do NOT need to wait until settlement in order to get out of position and profit from the trade. Bob or Ann can pass off their side of the future contract to someone else. So Bob, who is long, can sell the contract at a different price to Sally, who wants to hold the long side of the contract where Ann is short. So if Sally puts a bid order in the January 9 futures orderbook at $410, then Bob can sell his contract to Sally, earning a nice 2.5% return nominally, or 12.5% (5x) return on the 0.2 BTC initial margin used. In this sense, the contracts are just like trading spot!
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.