Understand Bitcoin Futures: A Step-by-Step Guide

Futures markets have been in existence for the more mature asset classes, including commodities and equities for quite some time, however, Bitcoin futures launch is a major step towards the legitimisation of the most popular cryptocurrency.
bitcoin CME

What is Bitcoin Future?

Within a futures market, an investor is able to trade futures contracts, which involves the purchase of an asset class at a particular price with a settlement date set at some point in the future.

The underlying value of the futures contract for a particular instrument is then priced according to the actual asset itself, whether gold, crude, an index or individual stock.

Futures markets have been prevalent in the financial markets for many years, with the first modern era futures market reported to have been the Dojima Rice Exchange, launched in Japan in 1710. Some suggest that the London Metal Exchange that was founded in the 19th century traces back to the 16th century and that’s before considering 1750 BC’s Code of Hammurabi that allowed the sales of goods and assets to be delivered for an agreed price at a future date.

Futures contracts contain the details of the asset class in question together with the purchase size, final trading day, maturity date and exchange on which the contract is being bought or sold. Futures contracts are created based on demand and do not get automatically created in the marketplace, involving two parties, where one party is going long on an asset class, while the other goes short.

Upon expiry of a futures contract, the settlement is either physical, in the case of commodities, or via a cash settlement in the case of Bitcoin, though the futures contracts are likely to change hands on numerous occasions before expiry. It is important to note that the futures market is used by investors looking to hedge exposures to a particular instrument or by speculators, neither of whom are actually looking for physical delivery that is akin to the spot /cash markets.

As investors have become more knowledgeable about the markets and the influences on asset classes, the futures markets have become a guide for investors on the likely direction of commodities, stocks and indexes on a given day, with crude oil futures, gold futures and the the Dow Jones reflecting investor sentiment towards the respective instruments and the direction based on the flow of information that influences supply and demand dynamics.

For investors looking to hedge, there will already be some form of an exposure to the spot or physical and the futures markets allow the company or investor to protect the upside or downside with a futures contract. As an example, airlines are well known to protect themselves against significant rises in crude oil prices, by buying a futures contract today with a specified price and delivery date in the future, on the assumption that oil prices will be on the rise over the period in question. In this case, the airline is exposed to the cost fluctuations of crude oil as a physical but is looking to protect itself in the futures market. If crude rises in value by $20 per barrel over the year and the airline has a futures contract at $5 per barrel above the current price, the impact on earnings is significantly less than without the execution of the futures contract. In this example, the airline would be taking a long position, while the party obligated to deliver the crude oil will be taking a short position, as they are the seller, while the airline is the buyer. An airline is unlikely to take a short position in crude oil, as declining prices benefit the bottom line.

In contrast to investors or companies looking to hedge exposures, speculators will be looking to benefit from the price fluctuations of an asset class without actually having a physical exposure to the asset class in question. The incentive for a speculator is profit from the general direction of contracts decided upon by their outlook on supply and demand for the particular instrument.

In summary:

Hedgers can go either long or short. Short positions are taken to secure a price now in order to protect the hedger from declining prices in the future, while long positions protect against rising prices in the future.

Speculators go short on the expectation of prices falling in the future while going long on the assumption that prices will be on the rise.

With Bitcoin now having been in existence since 2009 and become a sizeable instrument by market cap comparable to some of the largest listed companies on the U.S equity markets, it comes as a little surprise that futures exchanges have moved ahead on offering investors with the option of Bitcoin futures contracts.

The Cboe futures exchange launched Bitcoin futures on 10th December 2017 and is considered to be the first step in the evolution of Bitcoin into a mature asset class, with the futures market providing investors with greater liquidity, transparency and an efficient price discovery system.

CME Group followed Cboe with the launch of Bitcoin futures on 18th December, with both exchanges providing hedgers with a platform to hedge existing exposure to Bitcoin, while both allow exposure to Bitcoin without actually owning Bitcoin, opening the door for the speculators.

For Bitcoin, miners will receive some relief from the launch of the futures market, with the sizeable investments into mining equipment, not to mention exponential gains, needing some protection against price declines, while the speculator may be looking for the rally to continue and reach the stratospheric heights predicted by some in the marketplace, or in some cases, for the bubble to burst.

Bitcoin Futures Specifications: Cboe and CME

While Cboe Bitcoin futures was the first to launch, the CME Group is considered to be the world’s largest futures exchange.

Both exchanges have opened the door for the larger institutional investors to get in on the Bitcoin game through a more regulated, transparent and liquid market.

Since Bitcoin is a virtual currency, settlements will be cash-based and in U.S Dollars and unlike the cryptomarkets, where trading is 24-7, the futures exchanges are not, with more regular trading hours and limited to 6-days per week.

There are some key differences between the two exchanges and what’s on offer for those looking to hedge exposure to Bitcoin or speculate on future prices and some of the key differences include:

  • CME Group’s Bitcoin futures contract price will be based on a large number of exchanges, from which the CME CF Bitcoin Reference Rate (BRR) is derived on a daily basis. In contrast, the Cboe futures prices are based on a closing auction price of Bitcoin on a single Bitcoin exchange known as the Gemini exchange.
  • With cryptocurrencies having experienced significant volatility, it comes as no surprise that both exchanges have quite high margin requirements. CME Group’s Bitcoin futures margin requirement is 35%, whilst Cboe’s is 40%. The size of a margin requirement is a reflection of asset class volatility. To put it into perspective, the margin for an S&P500 futures contract is just 5%.
  • Both exchanges involve cash settlement of futures contracts on expiration date
  • On the Cboe futures exchange, a contract unit is equivalent to 1 Bitcoin, while on the CME Group exchange, one contract is equivalent to 5 Bitcoins.
  • Contract expirations also differ. The CME Group will have futures contracts that expire in the nearest 2-months in the March quarterly cycle and the nearest 2-months outside of the quarterly cycle. In contrast, the Cboe group will list 3 near-term serial month contracts, before including 4 near-term expiration weekly contracts, 3 near-term serial months and 3-month March quarterly cycle contracts.
  • Clearing on the CME Group exchange is via CME ClearPort, while the Options Clearing Corporation is used for the Cboe exchange.
  • Limits are also in place on how far the respective exchanges allow prices to move before temporary and permanent halts are triggered. On the Cboe exchange, contracts are subject to a 2-minute halt should the best bid or offer price, in the first contract to expire, move by 10% from the prior day’s close. Upon resumption of trade, should the contract price move by 20% above or below, trade is halted for 5-minutes. On the CME Group exchange, contracts will be halted on price move limits of 7%, 13%, and 20%
  • On the CME exchange one other distinct difference in the halt rules is that in the event of the contract hitting the 7% or 13% limit, trading continues without a halt as long as the price remains within the price limit for a 2-minute period. In event that the price falls back from the limit, the halt limit is raised to the next, whether 13% or 20%. In event that the contract price hits the 20% limit, there is no halt in trading and trading will simply continue within the 20% limit through the remainder of the session.

How to Buy and Sell Bitcoin Futures?

Bitcoin futures based on Gemini’s auction prices are available for trading solely on Cboe’s Futures exchange. Brokers that offer the trading of XBT (Cboe Bitcoin futures) futures include Advantage Futures, Interactive Brokers, Straits Financial, and TradeStation.

For CME Group Bitcoin futures, trading is made available on CME Group’s own site, whilst CME Group also provides a list of brokers and block liquidity providers for those looking to execute block trades or are looking for an intermediary.

For those looking to enter the Bitcoin futures market, the first and fundamental question is whether the motivation is speculative or to protect current Bitcoin earnings from any downside.

Choice of exchange may be considered arbitrary, but it would be best to go with the exchange with the greatest number of futures contracts issued, as both will be considered liquid from an investor perspective.

As we addressed before, contract sizes differ on the respective exchanges as do margin requirements, so these are also considerations.

When looking to trade with margin, this is essentially the funding component of the trade executed on the futures exchange. As investors will not actually own Bitcoin itself, there is no need for the full value of the purchase to be paid in advance of the contract expiry date. In the event of an investor holding a contract until the expiration date, the amount paid, if out of the money, is limited to the difference between contract price and the actual price. The margin is placed on a margin funding account as collateral for the trade.

In addition to the collateral, also referred to as initial margin, investors are required to meet Mark-to-Market calls during the duration of the futures contract. The Mark-to-Market (“MTM”) margin is the difference between the cost of the position held and the current market value (“CMV”) of the position. In the event of a loss, the exchange will fund any margin shortfalls stemming from a MTM call from the investor’s margin funding account. The reverse is also possible, where the exchange funds the account where the investor has margins in excess of the required amount.

In the event that the margin funding account falls below acceptable levels, the investor will then be required to fund the account to meet future MTM requirements.

As we mentioned above, contract sizes between the 2 exchanges are different, with the minimum contract size on the CME Group exchange being 5 Bitcoins, compared with 1 Bitcoin on the Cboe exchange. For institutional investors this may be less of an issue, but for a retail investor, that’s a minimum margin of $33,250 based on a Bitcoin value of $19,000 on the CME Group exchange, compared with a margin of $7,600 on the Cboe exchange, assuming an investor is looking for the smallest size contract.

Final settlement on both exchanges is in U.S Dollars, with no actual Bitcoins held during the duration of the contract that requires settlement. With futures contracts being a 2-sided market, involving a buyer and a seller, counterparty risk on the final settlement is absorbed by the respective clearing houses and not the party in the money.

It’s worth noting that, while those looking to hedge Bitcoin’s value are likely to hold futures contracts through the expiration, speculators are likely to be buying and selling Bitcoin ahead of expiration, taking advantage of daily movements in response to market noise. For this reason, market liquidity is particularly important for those holding futures contracts as an inability to find a buyer can have quite dire consequences to the futures market and the price of Bitcoin itself.


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How Can Bitcoin Futures Affect Bitcoin Trading?

Since the launch of the Cboe and CME Bitcoin futures, Bitcoin has received a double bounce in value, with the upside in Bitcoin coming off the back of Bitcoin futures valuations on each of the individual launch dates.

The gains have come off the back of Bitcoin futures seeing an uptick in value above Bitcoin’s actual value at the time of launch of each of the respective exchanges. With the general theory being that the smarter institutional money is going into the Bitcoin futures market, investors in Bitcoin will be looking towards the futures market as a guide to the future direction of Bitcoin, based on information available in the marketplace.

Added to the influence of both the Cboe and CME group Bitcoin futures is the fact that both provide investors with the option to go long or short. Increased appetite for lower prices would see the value of Bitcoin futures contracts decline, which would likely lead to price declines in Bitcoin itself. When we look at the Dow mini or the S&P500 futures, daily movements have a material impact on the direction of the main indexes each day, barring the arrival of new information to which investors respond during normal trading hours.

For now, the number of contracts is considered relatively small and investors may take less direction from the respective exchanges, but we will expect the number of contracts to grow over time and provide some idea on which direction Bitcoin will take on a given day.

We would expect the CME Group contracts to have a greater impact on the price of Bitcoin since the futures price will be based on Bitcoin’s price from a number of Bitcoin exchanges, not to mention the CME Group’s status in the futures market.

For those looking for the latest futures contract prices on the respective exchanges: CME GroupCboe

For those who are interested in Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies trading, below is a list of our recommended brokers.

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