Bitcoin breaks US$20,000 as it steps into the big leagues on the world’s largest futures exchange

Trading begins on the CME exchange, the second foray onto a major trading platform in a week and a sign cryptocurrencies may be entering the mainstream

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 December, 2017, 10:42am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 December, 2017, 2:55pm

Bitcoin futures briefly rose over the US$20,000 mark on Monday as trading in the cryptocurrency began on the CME, the world’s largest futures exchange, a further sign that virtual money may be entering the investment mainstream.

The CME January contract, the most popular type, reached a record US$20,650 in pre-trade, before falling back to as low as US$18,345. By 5pm Hong Kong time, the contract was quoted at US$19,310.

Contracts for February, March and June were all trading at around US$20,000.

Trading on the CME, operator of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and the Chicago Board of Trade, began only a week after bitcoin debuted on the Chicago Board Options Exchange (CBOE), and came as debate intensifies over whether the virtual currency is a genuine investment vehicle or a potentially disastrous speculative bubble.

The price of bitcoin, which was less than US$0.01 when it was first created in 2010, has surged 1,700 per cent this year. One bitcoin was priced at US$1,000 in January on the CoinDesk index, a specialist virtual currency news site that tracks prices from exchanges such as Bitstamp, Coinbase and Bitfinex.

Read: Why bitcoin mania will trigger the next global financial crisis

The dizzying price surge – and with it the explosive growth of bitcoin mines, equipment makers, exchanges and derivatives – has raised concerns among central banks and regulators, and some commentators have compared it to the tulip mania speculation that wreaked havoc in Europe in the 17th century. China and several Asian central banks have banned bitcoin, although it is legal tender in Japan.

Stephen Innes, head of trading for Asia-Pacific at foreign exchange broker Oanda, said that the jury was still out on how successful bitcoin trading would be.

“After bitcoin’s minor league debut on the CBOE, cryptos are heading for the big leagues with the opener on the CME,” he wrote in a note to clients.

“Given the contract size difference, [the CME contract] will likely be a better gauge of institutional or professional trader buy-in,” he said, noting however that many banks and brokers are still sidelined because of a lack of buy-in from traditional market makers.

One CME contract is for five bitcoin, while CBOE’s contract size is one bitcoin.

CBOE January bitcoin futures contracts traded at US$19,280 on Monday, after briefly hitting US$20,500 in earlier trade, with 2,267 contracts changing hands. On their debut a week ago they had surged 20 per cent, and had gained 17 per cent in their first week.

Bitcoin futures top US$18,000 on debut on CBOE as price surges trigger series of trading halts

Both the CME and CBOE futures contracts are cash-settled, but they differ in that the CME ones are based on an index from four bitcoin exchanges – Bitstamp, GDAX, itBit and Kraken, whereas CBOE’s are based on the auction price of bitcoin provided by Gemini Trust, a digital currency exchange.