Same Same But Different

Bitcoin and Money Services Businesses (MSB) find it very difficult to open and maintain bank accounts. The global hysteria over possible venues for money laundering (unless of course you are HSBC) has caused banks globally to curtail their support of MSB clients.

Several exchanges figured out that Taiwanese banks would bank them with minimal issues. The two most well known exchanges utilising Taiwanese bank accounts are Bitfinex and OKCoin International.

The American perception of Taiwanese banks lately is that of financial institutions with lax KYC / AML procedures. Read the following excerpt from a Reuters article about problems with Taiwan’s Mega Financial last October.

It is the second bank branch of the state-controlled firm to run afoul of U.S. financial authorities, after its New York branch was fined $180 million for lax compliance and anti-money laundering violations in August.

Mega Financial, which has close ties to Taiwan’s government, has been under scrutiny since about 200 of its customers were named in the so-called Panama Papers, a massive leak of documents from a Panamanian law firm that put the spotlight on the shadowy world of offshore companies used to avoid tax.

In order for Taiwanese banks to maintain their banking relationships in America, they must update their KYC / AML procedures for MSB clients. Unfortunately a large swath of MSB clients will be deemed too expensive to bank, and will be jettisoned.

Compliance is extremely expensive. Banks waste billions of USD a year on compliance and compliance related technology. It only serves to further protect incumbent financial institutions at the expense of small and innovative upstarts.

Bitfinex, OKCoin, and possibly other Bitcoin exchanges are affected. It may be that they have been told their accounts will not longer by active by a certain date. They are now scrambling for alternatives.

Bitfinex officially announced that both USD deposits and withdrawals are halted. OKCoin International has posted a notice that all USD deposits will be refused by their banking partner in Taiwan. Many old-timers know that the suspension of fiat deposits and withdrawals heralds tough times ahead for any Bitcoin exchange.

To some traders, this feeling is all too familiar. Mt Gox’s slow motion bankruptcy began in 2013 when their USD held in America was frozen. As users rushed for the exits, the Bitcoin thought to be held in custody was not there. In early 2014, Mt Gox shut its doors and filed for bankruptcy.

While traders are right to be nervous, it is not a given that Bitfinex and or OKCoin will be unable to operate. Yet, careful traders will take action. This post will examine how to get your money off the platform, and for those risk seeking traders, arbitrage opportunities that will arise during this time of stress.

Correspondent Banking

The biggest hurdle to successfully operating a Bitcoin/Fiat exchange is obtaining and maintaining a bank account. The quality of the banking relationships held by the exchange is a large success determining factor.

Most Taiwanese banks have branches throughout the Asia Pacific region. However, most do not have branches in the US. Ultimately that means that movement of USD between non-Taiwanese entities must pass through a correspondent bank in the US.

The correspondent bank is fully licensed to do business inside America, and can clear USD. Without the assistance of a correspondent bank, exchanges’ Taiwanese banks cannot process USD deposits and or withdrawals for foreign entities. Given that the majority of Bitfinex and OKCoin’s customers are not Taiwanese, most if not all incoming and outgoing USD must be processed with the assistance of a correspondent bank.

Wells Fargo, The Canary in the Coal Mine

In late March, according to a lawsuit filed by Bitfinex, Wells Fargo ceased processing outgoing USD SWIFT wire transfers from Bitfinex’s Taiwanese bank accounts. Wells Fargo is the correspondent bank for the various banks Bitfinex uses in Taiwan. The lawsuit alleged that $180 million of USD was effectively frozen.

This lawsuit is one of the only public windows the community received into the struggle between Taiwan banking institutions and their American correspondent banks. A similar situation may have occurred with OKCoin, but they did not choose to fight back through a public lawsuit.

Bitfinex vs. Wells Fargo Lawsuit

Get Me Outta Here

Bitfinex and OKCoin USD IOU holders are rightfully concerned. All is not lost. There are still ways to remove funds from these platforms.

The easiest way is for users to buy Bitcoin and withdraw it. Then they can sell that Bitcoin on another platform. As more users exit via this method, the price of Bitcoin rises on Bitfinex and OKCoin relative to other exchanges. Those exiting these exchanges are pushing up the price globally.

Users can use altcoins such as Litecoin or Ether to exit as well. At the time of writing, the Bitfinex premium to buy alts with USD is similar to buying Bitcoins. Given the low liquidity in altcoins, this may not be cheaper.

Bitfinex first indicated in a blog post,  that users could withdraw funds via Swiss Francs (CHF) and Hong Kong Dollars (HKD). However a few days later, they announced that their bank refused to process any outgoing wires in any currency.

The solution now put forward is to wash funds through their lawyer’s trust account. They claim that as creditors of Bitfinex, users can withdraw via this method only once. Those lucky enough to have domestic Taiwanese bank accounts face no issues withdrawing any fiat currency.

As of right now, OKCoin has not issued any announcements regarding the status of funds in their Taiwan bank accounts.

Arbitrage

Risk and profit seeking traders will be able to conduct arbitrage trades during this funding crunch. The trade I describe below is the most obvious.

  1. Buy Bitcoin outside of Bitfinex.
  2. Sell Bitcoin for USD on Bitfinex at a premium.
  3. Withdraw HKD to your bank account from Bitfinex.
  4. Wire the funds at your bank rate back into USD to a cheap Bitcoin/USD exchange.
  5. Rinse and repeat.

The ability to execute this trade is predicated on the ability to withdraw HKD or another fiat currency easily and quickly from Bitfinex. Given the recent updates, this assumption is questionable. All MSBs globally face similar issues, it may be weeks if not months before Bitfinex, OKCoin, or any other affected exchange is able to establish banking relationships again.

Due to the halt of Bitcoin withdrawals in China, XBT/CNY trades at a 15% discount to Bitstamp and GDAX. Therefore the premium on exchanges where fiat cannot be withdrawn, could easily reach a similar 15% premium.

Bitcoin / HKD: Bitfinex and OKCoin’s Savior

Days after filing, Bitfinex withdrew the lawsuit against Wells Fargo. Suing a correspondent bank in America may have been lights out for Bitfinex’s current and future banking relationships. To make matters worse, it may have attracted attention to other exchanges. If Wells Fargo is blocking Bitcoin exchanges, other banks should be thinking: should we block them too?

For now, there is still some hope. For every HKD issued, the Hong Kong Monetary Authority backs it with an equivalent amount of USD. The Hong Kong Monetary Authority will conduct open market operations to maintain a peg between 7.75 to 7.80 USD. While the peg holds, HKD is a liquid proxy for USD. If Bitfinex and or OKCoin can launch a liquid XBT/HKD market, they can continue to effectively serve as the most liquid XBT/USD spot markets.

Clearing HKD does not require funds to transit through the American banking system. Most of the world just wants to do business, and not worry about hypocritical moralising American politicians’ inspired regulations. Given enough effort, time, and willingness to pay high fees, exchanges will find banking partners willing to process HKD wires.

The on and off-ramps between digital currencies and fiat continue to cause significant friction. However, once traders squeeze through fiat gateways into the crypto universe, the trading opportunities are rich. If you desire a product to speculate on the value of Bitcoin without touching fiat, consider trading the BitMEX Bitcoin / USD Swap, XBTUSD.

Strongman Bullies and Bitcoin

Trump, Xi Jinping, Putin, and Erdogan: these four men are the embodiment of Strongman Bully leaders. Global trends indicate we will soon have more world leaders with similar mindsets.

Over the past 30 years, throngs of Chinese, Russians, and Turks have become rich. The masses held their tongue, while the elite shamelessly lined their pockets. In China, the wealth amassed in coastal cities like Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen, and Guangzhou stands in stark contrast to the developing and rural interior. Similar disparities exist in the metro areas of Russia and Turkey.

Xi, Putin, and Erdogan are all promising to restore the bargain with labour at the expense of capital. In previous decades, the masses have accepted disproportionally slow wage growth so long as their standard of living continued to increase. As global growth sputters, the bargain has become less tenable. The plebes are getting restless.

The marginal effectiveness of printing money to generate GDP output is waning. To make matters worse, population growth is shrinking in end markets like America and Europe. In response, central banks are reducing asset purchases. The net result will be higher interest rates and less trade.

All strongman bullies in all countries cannot be successful at the same time. Instead of trading for what they need, these leaders are likely to threaten to take what they need through war. A desperate leader can apply physical force to take resources, disrupt competing markets, and distract the local population from failed promises.

During times of war, assessing financial counterparty risk becomes a key investment survival skill. Will a USD deposit held in a Russian bank be worth the same as one held in an American bank? Every asset that you own must be evaluated on the basis of two concerns: beating domestic inflation and movement friction. In times of war, we are very likely to see inflation in necessity goods and deflation in other goods.

Where will the masses turn? Gold has value everywhere and is likely to triumph during these times. Recently, gold rallied when Trump authorised a missile strike against Syria, and when North Korea announced a potential nuclear missile test. Further rallies will come if global instability grows.

Bitcoin fits into this dynamic. Despite all of the issues it faces, it has persevered for over 8 years and still has substantial global value. Consider that as a vote of confidence in its ability to serve as a safe haven asset for a small pool of global capital.

Regardless of your political stance, the next 30 years will not be like the last. Highly intense regional conflicts are likely to flare up again. As desperate citizens look to store and transport wealth in the digital era, Bitcoin looks more attractive than ever.

The Rock Is In The Building

Litecoin is affectionately referred to as “rock” by many crypto traders. Litecoin has acted like a rock in trader’s bags since it hit its all time high of $40 in 2013. The technical merits of why Litecoin should be worth more than $0 are few and far between. Litecoin exists on life support only because Chinese traders for some reason enjoy trading it. Mainly that is because it is the only shitcoin the big three Chinese exchanges (BTCC, Huobi, OKCoin) offer.

During the current 2017 altcoin bubble, rock caught a stray bid. The pump and dump operators finally decided it was Litecoin’s time to shine. Rock is up almost 200% since late March.

The narrative supporting the rally is that SegWit is close to being activated. The activation threshold on Litecoin is 75% vs. 95% for Bitcoin. Litecoin is a CTRL+C, CTRL+V of Bitcoin. The slight changes include being Scrypt mined, and a block time of 2.5 minutes on average.

Many traders point to Litecoin as proof that if Bitcoin activates SegWit the price should explode higher as well. Some seriously delusional traders con themselves into believing Litecoin could actually serve as a replacement for Bitcoin if the Core vs. Bitcoin Unlimited civil war results in a contentious hard fork.

Oblivious traders are filling their bags with new shiny rocks. How do I know? Because in a recent tweet, Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong said they will list a Litecoin / USD pair. Altcoin pumps begin in earnest on Poloniex, and end when exchanges such as Coinbase and / or Bitfinex decide to list them.

A recent example of this phenomenon was Ether in Spring 2016. After a lacklustre performance in the secondary market from listing in August 2015 until January 2016, Ether ignited and went asymptotic. The peak during that particular rally was reached when Bitfinex announced it would list ETH. As soon as ETH listed on Bitfinex, the dump began.

Exchanges late to the party, even BitMEX is guilty of this from time to time, signal that peak fomo is near. Those traders tempting fate by holding Litecoin should be cautious. It isn’t called rock for nothing.

Baby Got BOOST

Before today, I would have thought ASICBOOST was a new form of energy drink. It even could be the long awaited reincarnation of 4Loco. Sadly that would not be nerdy enough.

An email from Greg Maxwell made the rounds yesterday, and is causing an uproar. Bitcoin Magazine published an article about the email that is going viral throughout the Bitcoin industry.

TLDR

  • An unnamed leading mining equipment manufacturer is using a patented technology, called ASICBOOST, to achieve efficiency gains of up to 30%.
  • If activated, Segregated Witness (SegWit) would eliminate any advantage for miners using the ASICBOOST technology.
  • Therefore the reason why large miners refuse to support SegWit activation is because they would lose their economic advantage.
  • Maxwell proffered a Bitcoin Improvement Proposal to eliminate gains achieved by using the ASICBOOST technology.
  • Although not explicitly mentioned, everyone assumes Maxwell spoke of Jihan Wu’s Bitmain.

Let’s Assume It’s True

The purpose of this piece is not to argue whether or not I believe Maxwell. Rather I believe for good or bad, many in the community will agree with Maxwell’s analysis and there will be a discernible impact on the Bitcoin price.

My base case is that SegWit will not be activated, and there will be no hard fork this year. If Jihan Wu is truly a Chinese devil (or Gweilo if he was white), and can secretly mine Bitcoin 30% cheaper than everyone else, my base case will hold.

If Bitmain captures above average profits mining Bitcoin as it currently stands, they have no reason to actually desire a contentious hard fork. They also would not want SegWit to smash the piggy bank. Therefore the optimal strategy is to vocally support a hard fork to erode support for SegWit.

SegWit to many is a convoluted way to scale Bitcoin. Many would just prefer a simple increase in the block size from 1MB to 2MB. However, Bitmain would never go so far as to actually conduct said hard fork.

In essence, Jihan can buy a new pad on the Hong Kong Peak each year under the status quo. Despite high Bitcoin network transaction fees, the price keeps rising. Users prefer Bitcoin as a store of value and a global form of money good collateral, to a fast and cheap payments network.

A continuation of the status quo is bullish for the price. The price dipped from $1,200 to below $900 on fears of a paradigm shift. If you believe the arguments put forth by Maxwell, then it makes business sense for Jihan to prefer the current small block, high fee, rising price situation.

The Market Hath Spoken

The price is steadily rising post publication of said article. If the community believes in the veracity of the claims put forward, the price will shortly surpass $1,200 and retest $1,300.

I’m All Blocked Up

Will Segwit be activated? Will a hard fork occur? Will the block size ever increase? These are the burning questions that act as a drag on further Bitcoin price appreciation. I don’t know how it will all pan out, but that doesn’t mean that BitMEX can’t allow its clients the ability to profit by predicting how Bitcoin will or will not scale.

BitMEX is pleased to announce the launch of two prediction futures contracts themed around the ongoing Bitcoin scaling debate.

Segwit

SEGWIT, symbol: B_SEGWITZ17, is a prediction future on whether or not BIP141, also known as Segregated Witness, will be activated on the longest Bitcoin chain by the expiry date (31 December 2017, 12:00 UTC).

SEGWIT will settle at 100:

  • If BIP141 is activated during an “activation period” by the expiry date, and
  • The Bitcoin chain that activated SegWit must remain the Bitcoin chain with the largest hash power for 1,512 out of the following 2,016 blocks (75%). These 1,512 blocks must have passed by the expiry date.

SEGWIT will settle at 0 if the above conditions are not met.

What is an Activation Period?

An activation period spans one difficulty period (2016 blocks). 95% of the blocks mined during an activation period must signal acceptance of BIP141 for SegWit to be activated.

View Activation Periods

Big Blocks

BLOCKS, symbol: B_BLOCKSZ17, is a prediction future on whether a block larger than 1MB will be mined on the longest Bitcoin chain.

BLOCKS will settle at 100:

  • If a greater than 1MB block is mined on the Bitcoin chain with the largest hash power, and
  • If the Bitcoin chain that mined the greater than 1MB block must remain the Bitcoin chain with the largest hash power for 1,512 out of the following 2,016 blocks (75%). These 1,512 blocks must have passed by the expiry date.

BLOCKS will settle at 0 if the above conditions are not met.

Note that blocks of size > 1MB due to SegWit activation shall not mean a block greater than 1MB has been mined; BLOCKS is contingent on an actual base block size limit increase.

Trading Prediction Futures

Each contract can either settle at 100 or 0. The value of each contract is 0.0001 XBT multiplied by the futures price. For example, if you bought one contract at 50.00 , it would be worth 0.005 XBT. If the contract settled at 100, you would make 0.005 XBT. If the contract settled at 0, you would lose 0.005 XBT.

No leverage is offered on prediction futures contracts.

You will find all BitMEX prediction futures contracts under the tab entitled “Binary”. All prediction futures contracts’ symbols will begin with “B_”. This prefix denotes that contracts are binary, meaning they will either settle at 100 or 0.

Prediction Futures Series Guide

Hold The Line

Throughout China’s history, northern rulers struggled to effectively control those to the south and west of them. The varied ethnicities, topography, and economies of China meant that no ruler was able to retain absolute power for long. Due to relative global peace and globalisation since WW2, the Communist Party of China (CCP) has been able to maintain control by bribing the masses with employment.

Rich people don’t have kids. As a result, after the baby boom in the mid-20th century, the global developed and developing population rate has fallen or will soon fall below the replacement rate. The replacement rate is defined as a woman birthing 2.1 children over her productive lifetime. Africa is the one exception, but unfortunately their consumption power cannot replace dying first-world consumers.

Xi Jinping’s mission to solidify the political base of the Communist Party of China occurs at a time when global demand for goods is falling, wages in China are rising, and the population is aging. Any perceived threat to the continuation of the CCP’s rule cannot be tolerated. 99% of humans aren’t communist, capitalist or any other “ist”, they are hungry.

China must feed its billion plus population by providing employment. Without employment, young men transform from docile workers to cannon fodder for skilled orators and politicians.

These trends explain why this year’s National Congress is of extreme importance. Calm must be maintained at all costs. However, internal monetary pressures continue to build.

Grandma Yellen unleashed another 0.25% rate hike last week. She also did not alter the forward guidance. Another two rate hikes are expected this year, and some analysts believe the Fed could and should increase the pace of hikes.

The Fed should raise rates faster while the market shrugs them off. The S&P 500, which is the only economic indicator of importance, has not reacted negatively to rising rates. Yellen has cover to raise more aggressively. The higher rates go now, the more they can be cut when the next financial crisis strikes.

For China, USD interest rate normalisation puts increasing pressure on the CNY. In a normal year, this would not be an issue. The PBOC could raise rates onshore, or allow the CNY to weaken. However the directive is for a calm period before the National Congress.

The PBOC can’t materially tighten rates onshore lest they pop the gargantuan property bubble. The Chinese property market is a government sanctioned ponzi scheme. Developers, which are some of the most valuable companies in China, borrow money from financially repressed savers. The developers then purchase land from local governments, who “buy” land from their peasant subjects at below market rates.

The developer must build, sell, and refinance before the bill comes due for past loans. Should rates rise materially, developers will be forced to dump inventory en masse.

Over 70% of household wealth is trapped in property. Each time it appears that Beijing will allow the market to correct, they relent in the face of sure losses from a wide swath of the population.

Tiananmen Square essentially was an inflation inspired middle class protest against the CCP. However in 1989, the middle class were mostly teachers, in 2017 they are hundreds of millions of property punters. Impoverish them, and the CCP will see its mandate to rule evaporate.

The second option of a material currency devaluation is also off the table for the time being. A 20% to 30% one-off devaluation is needed. However, an action of that magnitude would portray China’s economy as both weak internally and externally. A perceived “weak” China will not be tolerated while the new leadership ascends.

A recent Bloomberg article illustrates that Xi Jinping is not relenting in his dive to tame China.

For the first time local party committees are using “negative lists” — including everything from bribe-taking to involvement with illegal construction projects — to screen delegations to the 19th Party Congress, which will set China’s political hierarchy for the next five years. A front-page article endorsing the moves in the party’s flagship People’s Daily newspaper Monday showed the push has support from the highest levels.

The negative lists — a concept often associated with trade negotiations in which anything not specifically mentioned is allowed — gives Xi yet another tool to shape the key party gathering in Beijing. While no date has been set, it’s expected to occur in the second half of the year.

The twice-a-decade congress is crucial for Xi to secure lasting influence beyond 2022, when his own tenure would be expected to end. At this year’s meeting, 11 of 25 Politburo members — including five of seven members on its supreme Standing Committee — could be replaced.

Bitcoin Withdrawals

Mandated by the PBOC, the large exchanges are implementing new KYC and AML policies. Certain accounts must now travel in person to the exchanges’ offices for physical checks of identity. If followed, this will make client onboarding expensive and extremely bureaucratic. The end result will be less people trading on exchange, and more trading on OTC platforms such as LocalBitcoins.

I believe that withdrawals will not resume until after the National Congress and a subsequent CNY devaluation. However, a recent notice from Huobi implies an imminent lifting of the withdrawal ban. To withdraw Bitcoin, clients must state and prove where the coins will go, and state the purpose of the withdrawal. Responses such as “I want to escape a weak CNY” will certainly not fly.

True to form, the government is saddling exchanges with needless bureaucracy to bankrupt those with weak balance sheets. The PBOC will keep inventing new KYC / AML policies until they are ready to allow Bitcoin to be freely traded again.

Unfortunately Chinese comrades aren’t stupid. They recognise the perilous state of the economy and still hold Bitcoin IOU’s on exchanges. The expected stampede for the exits by selling Bitcoin to withdraw CNY has not happened en masse. Held long enough, this Bitcoin IOU could protect wealth against the imminent devaluation. This is one reason why the price still hovers around $1,000.

OPEC : Oil :: Miners : Bitcoin

Jihan Wu, CEO of Bitmain the world’s largest operator and producer of mining equipment, made an apt comparison between the Bitcoin scaling issue and the oil market.

OPEC in their quest to maintain high oil prices sowed the seeds for American shale oil. The high oil price allowed engineers to explore and drill for more expensive shale oil. Shale oil’s extraction price continues to decline as technology improves. As the supply of oil increased, prices fell, and OPEC’s hold on the market withered.

According to Jihan, Bitcoin miners are like OPEC. A small number of players control the majority of the hashrate. Bitcoin transaction volumes have increased, but the network can only process a finite amount of transactions. Therefore, transaction fees rose alongside the price.

Miners are happy. Some users are not. As a work around, some developers (core) altered the Bitcoin protocol allowing it to process more transactions without the need for a larger miner produced hashrate. If these off-chain scaling solutions are successful (e.g. The Lightning Network), miner’s earnings from transaction fees could decline.

On the margin, either you view Bitcoin more as a store of value akin to gold, or a payments network. If Bitcoin is more a store of value, the price of transactions is of little concern. Gold is rarely used for day to day commerce. It is used to store large amounts of wealth, and as a settlement currency for large notional transactions. Therefore the velocity of gold is low.

If Bitcoin is more a decentralised payments network, then the price and speed of a transaction is paramount. Bitcoin must be able to compete with credit card networks such as Visa and Mastercard if it is to become a real payments solution. Currently Bitcoin is clunky and expensive and is no match to these incumbents.

If neither SegWit nor a block size increase reaches consensus, Bitcoin will continue to travel down the road to becoming another form of money good collateral that is expensive in small quantities to move. To many miners this is a perfectly acceptable solution as long as the price remains high. Given that blocks are full, transaction fees are high, and the price continues to rise, users view Bitcoin more a store of value than a payments protocol.

The question is, can another cryptocurrency become a store of value, and be cheap and fast to send. Should another coin achieve this feat, it will become a major challenger to Bitcoin. To date, no coin is within striking distance of Bitcoin. Many claim that Ether will unseat Bitcoin, but it does not command the same global mindspace as Bitcoin.

Will a group of miners engage in a contentious hard fork, I don’t know. But I do know humans. Humans are lazy and greedy. Regardless of the temper tantrums thrown on various social media platforms, miners care about their bottom line. Doing nothing will not harm them in the short to medium term.

A Bitcoin hard fork will not be as cute and cuddly as Ethereum’s. The Ether market cap was barely $1 billion when the DAO disaster necessitated a face saving hard fork. Bitcoin is worth $17 billion. The amount of money invested in mining equipment, exchanges, and wallets tailored for Bitcoin is orders of magnitude larger than for Ethereum.

A failed hard fork that leaves a minority chain commanding a double digit percent of the network hashing power will not be viewed kindly. Unlike Ether and Ether Classic, the sum of the newly formed majority and minority chains will be drastically lower than the pre-fork value of Bitcoin. Ether never positioned itself as a store of value or a payments protocol. It is fuel for decentralised applications.

Bitcoin’s value is its relative stability vs. other cryptocurrencies. Disrupt that stability and its status as the reserve currency of crypto will evaporate. The challenger that does emerge will certainly not use Bitcoin’s Proof of Work algorithm. If successful, the challenger will render all Bitcoin ASIC mining equipment worthless.

Is Jihan going to stake the future of his Billion dollar mining company on a hard fork that could go pear shaped? No chance.

Onwards and Upwards

“If you mess with the bull, You get the horns!”

A managing director on the sales trading desk at Deutsche Bank used to scream that out when the market ripped higher. Equities almost makes up for the lack of pay vs. fixed income by employing some of the most colourful characters.

What do you call Bitcoin sans China or an ETF approval? All Time High. Two of the most central bullish tenants have been removed, yet Bitcoin still trades above $1,200.

The next issue that could crater the price is the ongoing scaling debate. The Segwit vs. Bitcoin Unlimited civil war is spoken of not only where internet trolls hide, but also in mainstream financial news outlets such as Bloomberg. No matter, the price continues to slowly grind higher.

With the Mt. Gox all time high surpassed, we are in the beginning stages of a secular rally. This rally will completely re-rate the entire cryptocurrency complex. The Ether market cap is now over $2 billion. DASH continues to rip higher. Three cryptocurrencies with >$1 billion market caps would be something to behold. All hail Shitcoins.

What is encouraging about the 2017 Bitcoin rally is that realised volatility is muted. The above chart displays the 30 day realised volatility and the XBT/USD price. Volatility rose during the initial PBOC crackdown, but then continued to fall as the price surpassed $1,200.

For Bitcoin, this rally was calm. Traders are still in disbelief. While the price continues to crawl higher, haters keep hatin’ because of China, scaling, and or lack of legitimisation by regulators. While they wait, others get rich. As a result, the crack up boom (aka Fomo) phase has yet to begin.

Another encouraging sign is the relatively low basis level exhibited by futures contracts. During the first quarter, the BitMEX Bitcoin / USD 31 March 2017 Futures Contract, XBTH17, traded with a maximum outright basis of 10% – 13%.

During the 2013 bubble, the ICBIT March 2014 quarterly future, featuring only 3x leverage, traded at a 100% outright basis at the end of December 2013. Shortly thereafter, the price crashed below $1,000 then $800 then $600, and finally we entered a nuclear winter for two years.

The market has matured since then. However, the market fomo will manifest itself in a sky high basis for the soon to be listed 30 June 2017 futures contract, XBTM17. Basis even with constant selling pressure from cash and carry arbitrageurs, can and will go substantially high due to 100x leverage engjoyed by longs.

A sustained 30 day realised volatility over 100%, and elevated outright basis levels of over 30% on XBTM17, will provide clues during the second quarter as to whether Bitcoin’s run is nearing completion. As the intensity of price action accelerates, the next upside physiological barrier is $2,000.

No Means No

A retail Bitcoin ETF is proving as elusive as entrance into the Elysian fields. The SEC issued a scathing rebuke as to why they disapproved a Bats exchange rule change that would have allowed the COIN ETF to list. The reasons for denial given by the SEC display a fundamental problem with the market structure of Bitcoin.

After reading the document, it is clear that the SolidX and Greyscale ETF applications are destined for the dustbin as well. Changing the thought process of a regulatory body takes years. A US-listed Bitcoin ETF will not be forthcoming any time soon.

Bitcoin Exchanges and Trading Volume

The COIN ETF daily Net Asset Value is calculated using the daily Gemini Bitcoin auction price. To create and redeem units, Authorised Participants (AP) must trade in the auction.

The SEC’s major issue with the application was that the auction volume was insufficient to support trading.

From the SEC:

Moreover, self-reported statistics from the Gemini Exchange show that volume in the Gemini Exchange Auction is small relative to daily trading in bitcoin and to the number of bitcoin in a creation or redemption basket for the Trust. As of February 28, 2017, the average daily volume in the Gemini Exchange Auction, since its inception on September 21, 2016, has been 1195.72 bitcoins, compared to average daily worldwide volume of approximately 3.4 million bitcoins in the six months preceding February 28, 2017. Also, as of February 28, 2017, the median number of bitcoins traded in the Gemini Exchange Auction on a business day (when a creation or redemption request might be submitted to the Trust) has been just 1,061.99 bitcoins,129 barely larger than the 1,000 bitcoins in a creation or redemption basket.

Gemini’s volumes are so low they barely can transact one creation or redemption basket. Unable to obtain liquidity on Gemini, AP’s would be forced to transact on other exchanges. The location of these “other” exchanges gave the SEC pause.

US-based and regulated exchanges account for a relatively small percentage of global Bitcoin / USD spot trading volumes. The most liquid exchanges are based in Asia or Europe. Bitfinex, the largest Bitcoin / USD spot exchange by volume, is insolvent. These facts are troubling to the SEC.

The agency worries that the majority of trading volume occurs on “unregulated” (read: Non-US domiciled) exchanges and this could endanger ETF investors. The agency cited inadequate surveillance of the major trading centers.

Even though Gemini has a trust license and is overseen by the NYDFS, the SEC found that even Gemini’s exchange was not on par with national exchanges such as the New York Stock Exchange or Nasdaq in terms of trading rules and procedures.

From the SEC:

The Exchange represents that it has entered into a comprehensive surveillance-sharing agreement with the Gemini Exchange with respect to trading of the bitcoin asset underlying the Trust and that the Gemini Exchange is supervised by the NYSDFS. Additionally, the Exchange states in its comment letter that it “agrees that less liquid markets, such as the market for bitcoin, may be more manipulable, but believes that … such concerns are mitigated as it relates to the Shares of the Trust and trading activity on the Gemini Exchange.” As explained below, however, the Commission does not believe this surveillance-sharing agreement to be sufficient, because the Gemini Exchange conducts only a small fraction of the worldwide trading in bitcoin, and because the Gemini Exchange is not a “regulated market” comparable to a national securities exchange or to the futures exchanges that are associated with the underlying assets of the commodity-trust ETPs approved to date.

Next Steps

In order to be in the running again, an ETF sponsor must demonstrate how the proposed venue for the trading of physical Bitcoin is regulated on-par with large established exchanges such as the NYSE, and has a significant market share globally. That will be almost impossible.

If Bitcoin traders desired heavily regulated exchanges, they wouldn’t prefer trading on an insolvent exchange over one registered with various alphabet letter agencies. Many large Bitcoin traders trade Bitcoin expressly because the trading venues are less regulated. They believe the operators are allowed to focus more on the customer experience and provide exactly what traders desire instead of fluffing regulators.

The absence of margin or other leveraged trading products on heavily regulated US-based exchanges means they will forever play second fiddle to Asian and European exchanges. Given the “America is the best” mentality of its national regulators, convincing them to allow an asset whose price is set by the “shifty Chinese” (insert the international boogiemen of the year) is a tall order.

However, this is not a death sentence. The SEC and other organisations are puppets of the large vested financial players. At the point when Bitcoin is too large to ignore, and daily trading volumes are robust and healthy, the iShares, Vangaurd, and Spdr’s of the ETF fund management industry will sponsor a Bitcoin ETF.

These heavyweights only care about generating fees. The underlying asset is an afterthought. When Bitcoin is large enough to support a healthy AUM that generates large management fees, they will get behind Bitcoin.

Unfortunately the biggest problem with the Winklevoss’ application was their outsider status. The objections put forward by the SEC could easily apply to any number of currently listed ETFs. If the fund manager was one of the good ‘ole boys, the ETF would stand a chance of approval.

The Investors’ Exchange LLC (IEX) applied and was approved to be designated a National Exchange by the SEC. This was not an easy process. IEX, written about in the Michael Lewis’ book Flash Boys, aims to level the playing field by enacting policies that equalise trading between low and high latency traders. The HFT lobby went into overdrive to dissuade the SEC from approving the IEX application.

IEX gives retail investors a level playing field against HFT firms. Who doesn’t favor leveling the playing field for the grannies and grandpa’s. However, this was a very heated and drawn out approval process. The SEC did the right thing in the end, but the big boys brought out all the guns.

Imagine if the big boys wanted a Bitcoin ETF. They would get it.

SEC Ruling

Indefinite Detention

Hedge Fund Brother No. 1 Xu Xiang, pictured above, was once a high flying hedge fund manager who never lost. Then one day he was disappeared. He resurfaced months later, after being convicted of securities fraud and now sits in jail. Some feared Bitcoin exchange heads could face a similar fate; however, the PBOC showed mercy.

Another week, another “meeting” between the PBOC and the heads of large Bitcoin exchanges in China. Shortly after the meeting held on March 7th, the PBOC released a statement reiterating that they have the authority to shut down errant exchanges. A list of actionable offences surfaced a few days later via Caixin. [News.bitcoin.com]

The following activities are prohibited:

  1. Offering leverage and margin trades.
  2. Producing fake volume and manipulating the market using zero fees.
  3. Violating AML laws.
  4. Violating regulations on foreign currency management and cross-border capital transfer with bitcoin.
  5. Replacing fiat by using bitcoin to purchase goods.
  6. Tax Evasion.
  7. Engaging in false advertising or participating in Ponzi schemes.
  8. Providing financial services without a permit, including credit, securities, and futures trading.

After the “friendly” meeting, exchange after exchange announced an indefinite suspension of Bitcoin withdrawals. No further guidance was given as to when Bitcoin withdrawals would resume. The price sagged a bit, then shrugged off the news. By the end of last week, Bitcoin would hit fresh all time highs in USD terms.

Chinese regulators recognise that they cannot shut down the exchanges. Regarding said exchanges, one regulator noted:

If oversimplified measures such as closing them down were taken, [investors] will be led into the underground black market or OTC markets, which are more difficult to control. Therefore, it is necessary to explore the establishment of long-term regulatory mechanisms. [News.bitcoin.com]

The new strategy is to starve the weak, and regulate the strong. This strategy is classic China. The government lets an industry compete unimpeded for a time, then they pick the strongest companies and destroy the rest through denial of critical licenses or enforcement of opaque regulations.

By removing the elixir of leveraged and zero fee trading, only exchanges with diversified business lines will survive. Earnings from spot Bitcoin trading will only be significant for the largest of exchanges (BTCC, Huobi, and OKCoin). Exchanges not on that list, will most likely not exist in 2018.

All three of those exchanges either have mining operations, payment solutions, and or offshore derivatives trading markets. Once the weaklings fold, the PBOC will bless the large incumbents and subject them to rigorous monitoring.

Viewed on a longer time frame, the developments over the past three months are positive. One of the Damocles swords hovering over Bitcoin slowly is being removed. Bitcoin will not be “banned” by the regulators. They recognise the power of the underlying technology and are attempting to rationalise Bitcoin within existing goals for China’s monetary system.

PBOC Governor Zhou in a recent interview stated that China Bitcoin trading platforms are not exchanges but rather only “websites”.

If it (trading platform/website) is called an exchange, it is not allowed unless a relevant department of our country permits it. Many people regard bitcoin online trading platforms as exchanges. These are actually two different concepts. [News.bitcoin.com]

That is encouraging that the PBOC permits mere “websites” to accept deposits like banks, and offer the trading of currency like an exchange. There is a bright future for Bitcoin in China for those who can survive. The PBOC tacitly approves Chinese people trading Bitcoin.

The current purgatory will end once the PBOC right sizes the Yuan. Calm must be maintained up until the October National Congress. After October, Beijing will greenlight the PBOC to relieve the pressure and devalue. After a large devaluation, the PBOC can loosen capital controls because once the damage is done the desire to flee is lessened. At that time Bitcoin withdrawals will be re-enabled.

COIN ETF, Event Horizon

After the PBOC curtailed Bitcoin trading inside China, America reasserted itself as the most important price setting location. The SEC’s decision on a rule change that could allow the listing of the world’s first Bitcoin ETF is the most anticipated binary outcome of 2017. Traders will make and lose tremendous sums over the next few weeks.

ETF Approval

If the SEC approves the Bats rule change, all manner of American muppet retail investors can yolo into Bitcoin via a regulated ETF. The pool of eligible money that can easily obtain exposure to Bitcoin will dramatically rise. There are various predictions about the amount of money that could flow into Bitcoin. In short, it will be Yuge.

I expect the price to appreciate by at least 100% by the end of March. This is pure speculation as no actual cash will flow into Bitcoin until the ETF begins trading later this year. The price may go up well over 100% only to sharply correct as animal spirits are tamed.

Those wishing to play the initial pump should buy the BitMEX Bitcoin / USD 31 March 2017 futures contract, XBTH17. The nitty gritty of when and how the ETF will be launched may dampen enthusiasm in the medium term. A future that expires during the height of the fomo leaves the best chance for longs to be forced into closing at a profit.

Those bullish over the medium-term, should purchase the BitMEX Bitcoin / USD 30 June 2017 futures contract, XBTM17. XBTM17 will list Friday 17 March 2017. The basis or implied interest longs pay for three month exposure will open high and rise aggressively.

During the height of the December 2013 bubble, the ICBIT March 2014 futures contract traded at an outright 100% basis. By selling futures and buying spot, you would double your money in USD terms. ICBIT only featured 3x leverage at the time, imagine how high basis could go with 100x. XBTM17 basis could trade into 100’s of percentage points throughout the contract’s life.

The Deny

The number of reasons why the SEC should not list the ETF is as numerous as those in favor of an approval. A significant amount of traders have not drank the Jim Jones koolaid. The BitMEX COIN Prediction Futures Contract, COIN_BH17, places the probability at 50%.

China took a backseat in this first quarter rally due to the actions by the PBOC. Since Bitcoin withdrawals were shut in February, hope of an ETF approval became the bullish narrative.

After Bitcoin withdrawals ceased in China, the price fell below $1,000 and quickly recovered to the kilo mark (who isn’t in love with the CoCo). That is the baseline support level sans an ETF approval.

If the rule change is denied, the price will quickly test $1,000. Due to the underlying bullishness of the market, traders will BTFD. If not now, the general consensus is that one of the many ETF applications will be approved. The market will focus on the next application approval deadline for the SolidX or Greyscale ETF.

One Week Expected Value (EV)

Assuming a 50% probability of approval, traders must compute the EV of the looming decision.

(50% * 100% Price Appreciation) + (50% * -30% Price Depreciation) = +35% EV

The EV is positive, meaning it behooves traders to be net long Bitcoin into the decision.

BitMEX offers a complete Bitcoin / Fiat trading suite. The most liquid option is to buy the Bicoin / USD Swap, XBTUSD. Be early. The enthusiasm and hype surrounding the decision will only grow throughout the week. Every major financial paper is covering this event. I have never seen so much interest in a mundane exchange rule change before.

Hallelujah, Glory Be To Growth

Glory be to growth. Reality be damned, China will continue attempting to grow at unsustainable levels. That is the message from the Chinese Premier Li Keqiang given this Sunday during his Two Sessions speech. He decreed that annual GDP growth target is +6.5%, which is slightly lower than the recently reported growth of +6.7%, [ZH]

China is not alone in its adherence to the gospel of growth. Real growth can only be achieved by productivity and population gains. These two factors are very difficult to predict or command and control with success over a long period of time. Many have tried, all of have failed.

When in doubt, governments world-wide regardless of their economic “ism” resort to rampant money printing to goose up “growth” numbers. GDP measures of the flow of goods, it is a poor yardstick for the real health of an economy. With more money, more goods flow. Voila, growth!

China did miraculously transform itself over the last 30 years. However, recent growth is merely the result of aggressive money printing. The Party talks the talk about reining in credit growth; however, in practice they are impotent to stop it.

Xi Jinping is one of the most powerful Chinese leaders since Mao. However, even he cannot politically stop the expansion of bank credit. If he were confident in his ability to, he would proclaim a more realistic growth target.

Michael Pettis, professor at Peking University and former Bear Stearns bond trader, argues that real growth over the next 10 years cannot rise above 3% to 5% without a financial crisis. The financial crises is predicated on too much credit chasing too few positive yielding investments.

Beijing knows this. The PBOC continues to slay paper tigers by removing liquidity on hand, and increasing it in other ways. For Bitcoin traders, it means that one of the main drivers of global monetary policy will continue to act as they have done in the past.

Yuan liquidity and loans will continue to be provided to zombie state owned enterprises (SOE). The iron rice bowl must hold, or peasants will reassert their displeasure with immense wealth big city elites amassed by depressing wage growth and financially repressing savers.

Excessive Yuan liquidity will push up inflation. The escape valve will be a devaluation of the Renminbi. Premier Li implicitly confirmed that arguments I have been presenting for almost two years will continue to be relevant.

The Ides of March

The next “most important ever” Federal Reserve rate decision will ironically occur on the Ides of March. That is March 15th. Various Fed governors voiced support of a hike at the next meeting. Grandma Yellen in her recent speeches has done nothing to temper the rate hike talk.

Fed Funds futures price in an 80% chance of a March 0.25% rate hike. A rate hike would be devastating to China. [CME]

Beijing refuses to use political capital to put forward economic policies to rebalance growth. They refuse to drastically curtail banks’ issuance of credit. From Queen Victoria to Chairwoman Yellen, China is once again at the mercy of an old white lady.

The Fed rarely disappoints the market when traders price in a >75% probability of a rate hike. The S&P 500 is strong, and investors seem willing to ignore reality; case and point, the Snap IPO. The company’s expertise is losing money with style. Masochistic investors propelled the latest tech darling up over 50% from the IPO price.

The Fed has perfect rate hike cover. The amount of balance sheet pain the PBOC endures to save face internationally is unimaginable. Calm must remain before the October National Congress. The lack of a pressure releasing devaluation in the face of a market assured rate hike, means when it comes it will be enormous.

The Bitcoin angle is well known. USD up, CNY down, Bitcoin moon!