In a move that caught investors by surprise, Cboe Global Markets has announced it does not plan to list additional bitcoin (BTC) futures contracts for trading. "XBT" is the trading symbol that Cboe has used for its BTC contracts. The exchange did say that its currently listed XBT futures contracts will remain available for trading. These contracts expire monthly, and the exchange must continue to list new ones to ensure that trading continues. Now the Cboe market for BTC futures will sputter out once the last contract expires in June.
Traders use futures contracts to bet on an asset's price moves, up or down. Corporate cash managers supervising the transfer of balances denominated in foreign currencies among global subsidiaries often turn to futures contracts to hedge their risk and lock in prices that are critical for business activities. Futures allow sellers of the underlying commodities to know with certainty the price they will receive for their products at the market. At the same time, it will enable consumers or buyers of those underlying commodities to know with certainty the price they will pay at a defined time in the future.
The Chicago-based Cboe unveiled bitcoin futures on December 10, 2017, when BTC prices were at astronomical heights; 1 BTC was worth almost $17,000. Cross-town rival CME Group introduced its own version of BTC futures a week after Cboe made its move. Reacting to Cboe's XBT trading suspension, the Wall Street Journal observed:
"Trading volumes in Cboe's bitcoin futures have lagged behind those of its larger crosstown rival, CME Group Inc. On Thursday, the last trading day before Cboe's announcement came out, close to $90 million worth of CME's bitcoin futures changed hands, compared with around $8 million worth of Cboe's contracts, according to data from the two companies."
Note, too, that Cboe has estimated that 30 percent of its XBT trading activity originates from overseas.
When BTC futures were first launched, market participants believed that services and products designed for institutional investors were on the drawing boards. The hope was that institutional involvement would lead to a steady expansion of daily trading volumes. Volume is a measure of how much of a given financial asset has been traded in a given period of time, or how many times the asset has been bought or sold over a particular span. Traders tend to react enthusiastically to rising volumes, and they tend to clear out when volume is dropping. Buyers require increasing numbers and increasing enthusiasm in order to keep pushing prices higher. Increasing price and decreasing volume show lack of interest, and this is a warning of a potential reversal. A price drop (or rise) on little volume is not a strong signal. Alas, there has been no parade of institutional cryptocurrency derivatives.
Overall, the hopes for lively BTC trading volume have dimmed. The Wall Street Journal's views on what spoiled the path were echoed by a number of sources: the mind-spinning dive in BTC prices last year, regulatory uncertainty, and the stream of negative headlines surrounding hacks and thefts in the cryptocurrency arena. Highly regulated Wall Street financial institutions are apt to steer clear of signs of malfeasance. (Yes, yes … the irony in that.) Rest in peace, XBT.