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NEW YORK (AP) — Wall Street got its first taste of bitcoin on Monday, with the price of the first-ever futures contract for the digital currency jumping 20 percent.
It's a step forward for the bitcoin, which has soared this year despite concerns that the surge of investor interest has transformed it from a new-age currency into just the latest speculative bubble.
One prominent securities regulator warned that people were now taking out second mortgages on their homes to buy bitcoin.
The January contract for bitcoin futures closed at $18,545 on the Cboe Futures Exchange. Trading began Sunday and the price rose as high as $18,850, according to data from the Cboe.
The bitcoin futures first day of trading was not entirely smooth. The Cboe's website crashed several times or slowed down, due to a surge of interest. The exchange halted trading twice on the first day to stem volatility. The exchange operator has rules in place to stop trading after price swings of 10 percent.
The Cboe said at least 20 trading firms "actively participated" in the first day of trading, without giving specifics. Volume of the bitcoin futures was relatively low, trading less than 4,000 contracts compared with the tens of thousands that typically trade for more popular commodities like oil, gold, or wheat, or the hundreds of thousands of contracts for popular stock-based futures like the S&P 500.
The Cboe futures don't involve actual bitcoin. They allow investors to make bets on the future direction of bitcoin. Monday's futures price indicates investors expect bitcoin to keep rising in the coming weeks, although at a slower pace than seen recently. The futures price was about 8 percent higher than the price of $17,100 quoted for bitcoin on the large private exchange CoinBase late Monday afternoon.
But with the surge of interest has come concerns about the bitcoin market being in a bubble. In an interview on business network CNBC, North American Securities Administrators Association President Joseph Borg said he observed some people taking out mortgages on their house to buy bitcoin.
While bitcoin has a vocal group of true believers, it also attracts its fair share of detractors. JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon has called bitcoin "a fraud." Thomas Peterffy, chairman of the broker-dealer Interactive Brokers Group, expressed deep concerns about the trading of bitcoin futures last month, saying "there is no fundamental basis for valuation of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, and they may assume any price from one day to the next."
But there is some hopes that bringing bitcoin to a public exchange like the Cboe or the Chicago Mercantile Exchange will bring some regulation or legitimacy to the world of crypto-currencies.
"The next immediate things we will see with the futures is more predictable price movement and less volatility," said Emin Gun Sirer, a professor at Cornell University who studies digital currencies like bitcoin.
There have been other attempts to bring bitcoin investing into the mainstream. Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss, twin brothers who own large amounts of bitcoin, tried to create an exchange-traded fund based on bitcoin, but federal regulators denied their application. The Winklevoss twins run Gemini, however, the exchange the CBOE is using to price its bitcoin futures.
Cboe's rival exchange CME will start trading its own futures on Dec. 18 but will use a composite of several bitcoin prices across a handful of exchanges.
There have been other attempts to bring bitcoin investing into the mainstream. Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss, twin brothers who own large amounts of bitcoin, tried to create an exchange-traded fund based on bitcoin, but federal regulators denied their application.
How much actual investor interest there will be in these bitcoin futures is still up in the air. Many larger Wall Street brokerages and clearinghouses, including Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase, are either not allowing customers to trade bitcoin futures or only allowing select clients to do so. Other brokerages are putting restrictions on the amount of margin a trader can use in bitcoin futures, or putting limits on the amount that can be purchased.
The digital currency has had more than its fair share of critics on Wall Street. JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon has called bitcoin "a fraud." Thomas Peterffy, chairman of the broker-dealer Interactive Brokers Group, expressed deep concerns about the trading of bitcoin futures last month, saying "there is no fundamental basis for valuation of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, and they may assume any price from one day to the next."
Peterffy noted that if bitcoin futures were trading at that time, under the CBOE's rules those futures likely would experience repeated trading halts because 10 percent or 20 percent moves in bitcoin prices have not been unusual in recent months.
Bitcoin is the world's most popular virtual currency. Such currencies are not tied to a bank or government and allow users to spend money anonymously. They are basically lines of computer code that are digitally signed each time they are traded.
A debate is raging on the merits of such currencies. Some say they serve merely to facilitate money laundering and illicit, anonymous payments. Others say they can be helpful methods of payment, such as in crisis situations where national currencies have collapsed.
Kelvin Chan in Hong Kong contributed to this report.
This report has been corrected to show the opening price of the bitcoin future contract was $15,000.