Waiting for Godot

“Nothing happens. Nobody comes, nobody goes. It’s awful.” 
― Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot

The crypto community has been waiting for a variety of Godots since its inception. For traders, our Godot is the mythical Institutional Investor. When they get involved in a big way, our bags will transform into Lambos, and we will live happily ever after. When they get involved, liquidity will magically improve and the market will “behave” as it is supposed to.

Many crypto commentators including myself, proclaimed 2018 as the year institutional investors get involved in a big way. This flood of new money would help support a Bitcoin price above $10,000; and take us to Valhalla in short order.

With northern hemispheric summer approaching, are institutional investors actually flocking to our new space? News of a Goldman and JP Morgan crypto trading desk aside, what is the best proxy for insto interest in crypto?

The CME and CBOE Bitcoin futures contracts trading volumes are the best proxy. Both of these contracts are USD margined and settled. Anyone who trades these contracts obtains Bitcoin price exposure without ever touching Bitcoin. At BitMEX, our contracts are margined and settled in Bitcoin. That means to trade, you must own Bitcoin. Most instos love the idea of Bitcoin, but are terrified of actually buying, storing, and transferring it.

The Numbers

The above graphs show the USD trading volumes of the CME, CBOE, and BitMEX Bitcoin / USD contracts YTD.

The first takeaway is that BitMEX dominates. BitMEX’s retail client base, trades multiples of the insto client base of the CME and CBOE. BitMEX retail traders for the most part would find it very difficult to open an account with a broker that offers connectivity to the CME and CBOE. These brokers will require relatively high account minimums. The lower leverage offered and higher contract notionals at the CME and CBOE mean that even if a typical BitMEX client had connectivity, they would not be able to afford to trade even one contract.

It is clear from this data that retail traders still dominate the flows. Anecdotally, if you hang out long enough in Telegram, WeChat, Reddit etc. you will hear traders talk about spot movements triggered by quirks of a particular derivatives market. Friday settlement for OKex quarts on many occasions has completely whipsawed the market. Trading behaviour is also affected by an upcoming large funding payment on the BitMEX XBTUSD swap. What there is scant mention of, are market changes in response to the CME or CBOE expiry.

Tomorrow Is Another Day

The CME and CBOE volumes point to tepid involvement by instos. The Jan to May MoM CAGR is 3.94%. However, that will change. As banks gin up their trading activities over the next 6 to 12 months, they will begin hand-holding their clients in their crypto baptism. If a bank is going to take the reputational risk by publicly announcing the creation of a trading desk, they will do whatever they can to generate business to justify the risk. The easiest product to trade is the one that doesn’t require anyone to actually touch the underlying asset.

An easy win for a newly minted trading desk is to provide risk pricing on CME and CBOE listed futures. A client wants to trade a chunky block immediately; the sell-side desk will quote a two-way and clear their risk on-exchange over the trading day. The client gets instant liquidity in excess of the screen, and the bank can take healthy bid-ask margins on meaningful flow.

As volumes and open interest grows, the interplay between the USD settled and Bitcoin settled derivatives markets will lead to profitable distortions in the market. Before that happens, interested traders should read the BitMEX vs. CME Futures Guide. The non-linear components of the BitMEX products complicates things, but ultimately means there will be profitable arbitrage and spread trades between the two universes.

Money Launderers Use Property, not Bitcoin

​For some, crypto-coins have a bad reputation: “it facilitates money laundering” is a common belief. Enlightened Hodlers retort that Bitcoin is a terrible way to launder money: it has a public ledger and relative illiquidity vs. the USD. While USD is the preferred method of account, which USD assets do money launderers favour? Pro-Tip: It ain’t Bitcoin.

In these modern times, washing $1 million of crisp cocaine-tainted Benjamins is no easy feat. If you walk up to a teller and attempt to deposit into a bank, they most likely will turn you away or call the police. You could call Saul in New York’s diamond district and attempt to wash it through precious stones; but, fencing those diamonds at close to par will prove difficult.

Governments always want more money parked in their jurisdictions. However, sometimes they have to play the coy mistress and profess their desire to stop terrorist financing (except for the Saudis). Below I will show that the property market is the preferred washing machine for the world’s unclean cash.

I will take a look at the real estate purchase and holding disclosures in Hong Kong, where China launders its money, and the United States where the world launders its money. I will look at both through the lens of the Common Reporting Standard (CRS). We will step into the shoes of our average USD millionaire Zhou from China. How would he clean his cash, and keep the eye Xi from knowing where his loot is?

Chinese people are under no illusion about the rapacious nature of their government. While many have benefited handsomely over the past 30 years, one wrong political misstep could send them back to the countryside penniless. The complete lack of financial freedom means that Beijing, if it wants to, can completely bankrupt you on a whim with no due process.

America, the home of the free, decided that it needed to know where all the financial assets of its tax donkeys globally reside. They required any financial institution to report on the assets of any American. China and many other countries also thought this was a great idea. Hence, the Common Reporting Standard was born. The CRS allows member countries to share financial data between themselves. Under the CRS, China can call up Hong Kong and request information on any Chinese national.

There were two very interesting developments in the history of the CRS:

  1. America failed to ratify the CRS. Which means, for example, that America is not obliged to share financial data on Chinese people with assets in America with China. Things that make you go ‘Hmmmm…’ for $200, Alex – America wants all countries to follow FACTA and inform on Americans, but it won’t return the favour. I wonder where all those assets held by non-Americans will end up?
  2. Hong Kong exempted property from the assets deemed reportable.

As this SCMP article notes, Chinese people rushed to convert bank deposits into property. Property is one of the best generators of economic activity. Many jobs are created on the back of a property boom. From a policy perspective, anything a government can do to encourage an increase in the property stock will make it look like it knows how to run a successful economy.

That’s the date the country falls in line with the Common Reporting Standards, or CRS – a Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA)-type regime developed in response to a G20 request, aimed at combating cross-border tax evasion and protecting the integrity of the international tax system. The Chinese government pledged to join in with CRS in 2014.
Details on financial assets held by foreign individuals within mainland China will also start being collected.
The agreement means information will be exchanged with tax authorities in 100 countries and regions from next year, including Hong Kong.
The city has been considered a tax haven for many mainland investors, as there is no capital gains tax levied here. But now they are being forced to convert those financial investments into property, prior to the July deadline to avoid declaring any financial assets held abroad, to the Chinese authorities.

When it comes to the US, the National Association of Realtors is hell-bent on property purchases being exempt from KYC / AML regulations. FinCEN recognised that property became a blatant cash washing machine in certain hot markets, and imposed some disclosure requirements in August 2017.

Set to expire on February 23, 2017, FinCEN discovered that a significant portion of the reported covered transactions in the latest GTOs were linked to possible criminal activity by the individuals revealed to be the beneficial owners of the shell company purchasers. As a result, FinCEN is extending the current GTOs for an additional 180 days, until August 22, 2017, and may consider permanent data collection requirements later this year for more cities.

The GTOs require certain title companies to identify natural persons with a 25 percent or greater ownership interest in a legal entity purchasing residential real property without a bank loan or similar external financing in the following geographic areas meeting specific transaction thresholds:

  • $500k and above – Bexar County, Texas
  • $1m and above – Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach Counties, Florida
  • $1.5m and above – New York City Boroughs of Brooklyn, Queens, Bronx, and Staten Island
  • $2m and above – San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Clara Counties, California
  • $3m and above – New York City Borough of Manhattan

This is a step in the right direction to fight those evil money launders at the very high end of the market, but for your average Zhou with a few million big ones to stash, it is still business as usual.

America remains the favoured place to stash cash away from Beijing’s prying eyes, or, indeed, those of any other government bent on stemming capital flight. As long as someone stays below those investment limits, he or she can expect to have little difficulty obtaining a clean bank account and making a property purchase with cash.

Let’s Try With Bitcoin

It is clearly easy to wash and hide a few million USD in the liquid property markets of Hong Kong and America. What about using the favourite monetary boogeyman, Bitcoin?

Assume you want to move $1 million in cash into Bitcoin.

There are two options: either you can open an account on an exchange, or trade over-the-counter (OTC) with a dealer.

Any exchange that can handle this sort of volume has a serious banking relationship. Their bank will require extensive KYC / AML checks on all accounts. If the purpose is to hide the flow of funds, this is suboptimal. Presented with a subpoena, the exchange will be obligated to present the customer details.

If you can’t use an exchange, perhaps an OTC dealer would trade with you. Unfortunately the large dealers also must follow KYC / AML regulations. They again have banking relationships to maintain.

The major liquidity sources are exchanges and compliant OTC dealers. There are dealers who will onboard a client without KYC checks; however, their spread vs. the market will be extremely aggressive. A 20%+ vig to clean your money, assuming they can handle your size, is to be expected.

Washing money through the crypto capital markets is very difficult if you are unwilling to provide KYC information. Property is much easier, and vested interests from the government to the real estate brokers want you involved. They will do all they can to alleviate KYC / AML reporting requirements. Satoshi ain’t the biggest illegal finance enabler: no, it’s Uncle Sam.

Funding Mean Reversions 2018

One of the most powerful and simple trading strategies is mean reversion. The XBTUSD swap features a funding rate that is exchanged between longs and shorts every 8 hours. The rate is calculated based the observed premium or discount of the swap over the spot index from the previous 8 hours. The lag between observation, announcement, and payment of funding gives this rate predictive power.

The intent of the funding rate is to entice traders to take the counter-trend position. If the market is falling, those trading with the trend will pay funding (shorts). If the market is rising, those trading with the trend will pay funding (longs). The trend is your friend until it ain’t. Anecdotally traders notice that the funding is elevated in absolute terms directly preceding a turn in the market’s direction.

Last September I presented a simple mean reversion funding strategy. If funding is high in positive terms, short XBTUSD right before funding is charged. Receive the funding payment, then cover the short position 8 hours later. If the funding is high in negative terms, go long XBTUSD right before funding is charged. Receive the funding payment, then close the long position 8 hours later. Depending on your criteria for when you put on this trade, there is a historically positive profit.

Armed with slightly longer than one year’s worth of data (March 2017 to April 2018), I have calculated the historical returns for this strategy. The trading triggers happen at one and two standard deviations away from the mean on the positive and negative side. The below are the results:

Sigma – This is the number of standard deviations away from the mean.

Count – For negative funding, this is the number of observations where the funding rate is below or above the Sigma for negative and positive funding rates respectively.

% Passes – This is the percentage of observations in the Count sample set where if the Sigma is negative, the next log 8-hour return is positive; or if the Sigma is positive, the next log 8-hour return is negative.

Cumulative Funding – This is the total amount of funding received from the observations in the Count sample set. If the Sigma is negative you will be going long XBTUSD and receiving funding. Therefore, even though the Cumulative Funding is listed as negative, you will receive this as income.

Cumulative XBTUSD Return – This is the sum of the next log 8-hour return of observations in the Count sample set.

Cumulative Return – This is how much you will earn from this mean reversion strategy. That is the funding income net of the return from the XBTUSD trades.

% of Total Observations – [Count / Total Number of Observations]

The most profitable range in this simplistic study is between the one and two Sigma absolute ranges. That fundamentally makes sense. If the funding is at the maximum, the counter-trend trade will very likely blow up in your face as the trend continues. Bitcoin, as readers know, is a very emotional market. The highs go higher and lows lower.

As the funding moderates during an extended rally or dump, that is when the tide is most likely to change. And that is when placing a counter-trend trade which receives the funding and direction change is the most profitable.

The more sophisticated statisticians amongst us can concoct much more advanced and nuanced mean reversion strategies centred around the XBTUSD funding rate. The data for the analysis I conducted are all freely available via our public API. This study is yet another proof that plenty of juice remains in the Bitcoin market for cool-headed analytical traders.

The Crypto Hangover

After a December to remember, crypto took a rough ride in the paddy wagon called the markets. The volatility was glorious, but for many, the gyrations negatively impacted their PNL. Bloodied traders, hedge funds, and ICO issuers litter the information highway. The El Dorado of uncorrelated returns still entices many to continue their journey in this new and exciting industry.

2, But No 20

Every day my LinkedIn inbox was filled with at least one new person announcing they were opening a crypto hedge fund. Various media outlets reported that by the end of Q1, a few hundred registered crypto hedge funds existed.

The vast majority of these funds are long only. Meaning these fund managers are overpaid beta chasers. Nothing wrong with the beta, but when you fool yourself into thinking you produce alpha, disastrous results ensue.

The investors who gladly handed over thousands and sometimes millions of USD, now stare at scarlet numbers that would make Hester Prynne proud. As I check in with some of my hedge fund manager friends, the fundraising process is going slower than expected.

The second class of slightly more sophisticated fund managers expected to arbitrage their way into Steven Cohen’s league. These managers proved more successful; however, some learned that your risk management in the crypto markets better be airtight or you will get REKT. All manner of bad luck greeted their lackluster returns. The inability to manage margin requirements on spread trades is one sure way to destroy a spread trade.

All in all, many newly minted John Paulson wannabe’s learned that it wasn’t so easy to trade crypto. The markets were volatile, seemingly random, and did not “behave” as they should or had.

ICO, A Dream Deferred

Every tech team now needs an ICO strategy. If the un-washed public will hand you hundreds of thousands of Ether on nothing more than a slick website and a plausible whitepaper you have to take their un-dilutive money. The flood of ICOs continues unabated, most of the 2017 vintage deals now trade below their ICO price.

I firmly believe that the ICO is a revolutionary way to fund technology projects. And the ICO should allow anyone with an internet connection and a few Satoshi or Ether to participate in the success of a project. However, the ICO has morphed into a private-placement orgy.

The ICO deals have gotten bigger, which necessitated the creation of the Sale of Future Tokens (SAFT) monstrosity. Teams bypass the small individual investors who used to participate in public ICO issuances for private deals conducted through SAFTs. Telegram has raised over $2 billion via SAFTs issued to professional investors. Good on them, but we should not consider that a real ICO.

Traditional VC investors love the SAFT because it closely resembles the traditional Series Alphabet soup. The SAFT achieves the liquidity event very quickly, meaning they can dump their paper on retail investors in the secondary market. However, there is just too much token toilet paper for the market to absorb. The ICO market slumped and took its god Ether with it.

Many newly minted token investors will find that without the support of retail, they are just passing a hot potato along Sand Hill Rd. Unfortunately for their bonuses, these hot potatoes are marked to market almost immediately and could end up costing them percentage points of returns.

This is not an “ICOs are dead” market call, but rather for ICOs to regain their former glory, they need to go back to basics. The teams that can say no to SAFT, and actually launch a fair and widely distributed public token sale, will revive the market. There are still projects that will do extremely well, but most of these tokens are and always will be dog turd.

Trading All Markets

The financial media loves crypto; there’s pathos and a cast of very interesting characters (I’m loving Brock Pierce’s hats). Readers searching for the next get rich quick investment devour any and all crypto coverage. PSA: if you need to read Bloomberg to figure out what happened in crypto, don’t quit your non-crypto day job.

There are any number of reasons why the market plunged from $20k to $6k in Q1. US tax-related selling, regulatory FUD, the ICO slump, weak hands capitulating, are all plausible reasons. These combined with the simple fact that an asset that goes up 20x in one year is certainly due for a meaningful correction.

No financial reporter will accept the simple reason that nothing goes up or down in a straight line. There must always be a reason, and they print all manners of gobbledygook if it sounds plausible to their editor.

The best crypto traders can trade both bull and bear, and furthermore both trending and choppy markets. However, I have encountered very few of these specimens. Most successful traders learn their style and if the current market structure doesn’t fit, they take a break.

The market is in chop mode. After $10,000 thunderously fell, the market traded in a $6k to $10k range. The beauty of Bitcoin is that the range is very large, and moves sudden. For disciplined traders, this chop is a gold mine.

For those who thought merely sitting in a Telegram chat room, or reading /r/bitcoinmarkets was sufficient to generate mad gains, SFYL. What keeps traders coming back to the market is that hard work is actually rewarded. This is truly the only real free asset market globally. That should excite any student of the markets, and student one must be if you want to drive a Lambo and order trains of Dom P.

P.S. If you don’t know what a train is, order one at the club, and watch your heart skip a beat when presented with the bill.

Onward to The Elysian Fields

Before one departs for the Hamptons, French Riviera, or Bali, another quarter awaits. Q1 was the carnage, Q2 will be the consolidation.

The regulators spooked us, the drops nuked us; but after all of that $5,000 was not breached. Bitcoin is still here, the markets are still volatile, and more people than ever before know what a cryptocurrency, digital token, and or ICO is. That is a net positive.

Many exchanges now have more registered users than the stock exchange in their domicile. The demand to trade these markets surpasses the capacity of exchanges. Crypto is not going anywhere, and those who are completely comfortable in the digital arena will continue to prefer crypto investments to equities and fixed income.

I don’t know where the price will be in the next three months, but my spidey sense tells me a sentiment shift is occurring. The next test will be $10,000. Can we hold, and for how long? Then the journey back to $20,000 can continue.

The Volocaust and method actors

BTFD was the rallying cry of crypto traders throughout 2017. The beginning of 2018 will test even the most stalwart HODLers. When is the right time to back up the truck? It surely wasn’t at $15,000, $10,000, or $8,000.

One of my best friends, once a top-ranked bond salesman, describes himself as a first-rate method actor. When he showed up to work, he had the perfect coif, wrist watch, and tailored suit. Seeing him after he left all that behind, you would think he was a wannabe K-Pop star. When the play was over, he became himself again.

The actors in the financial-services theatre don their costumes to drape themselves in an air of respectability. The right accent, pedigree, and clothing allow them to convince the unwashed heathens that the financial products and advice they peddle is not snake oil.

I wore my costume too, although my performance was not as convincing. Every Friday at Deutsche Bank, we were allowed wear casual clothing. One Friday, while I was a first-year analyst, I decided to wear a pink polo shirt, acid-washed jeans, and yellow sneakers.

Later that afternoon, the head of Equities walked past my desk and saw me. He asked my boss, “Who the fuck is that?”, referring to me and my baller outfit. The next week, I learned that casual Fridays were cancelled for the whole office. Thank you, Arthur Hayes!

The firms employing these troops of actors still have an aversion to Bitcoin. They are hypocrites, and the latest volatility gyrations that REKT thousands of retail punters invested in products they sold is case in point.

A primer on leveraged and inverse ETFs

A traditional ETF is a product used to go long on a particular basket of assets. An example is SPY, the SPDR S&P 500 ETF. It gives holders exposure to the S&P 500 index by holding a basket of stocks.

One of the biggest reasons why ETFs are so successful in the US: investors can purchase them in their retirement accounts. Retirement accounts have various restrictions on the type of assets that may be purchased. Usually, these accounts do not allow investors to hold futures contracts or trade on margin.

Investors crave leverage and the ability to go short. Futures contracts are the most cost-effective way to gain this type of exposure. However, the minimum size of many contracts prohibits small investors from using them. Also, small investors cannot use them in their retirement portfolios.

To satiate this demand, ETF issuers began launching leveraged and inverse ETFs.

Let’s assume we launch an inverse ETF on the S&P 500 index (SPX). The purchaser of this ETF will profit if the index declines.

daily ETF performance = -1 * daily return SPX 

Say that on day 1:

SPX Close0 = $1,000
SPX Close1 = $500

Return = -50%

ETF performance = -1 * -50% = +50%

And on day 2:

SPX Close1 = $500
SPX Close2 = $1,000

Return = 100%

ETF performance = -1 * +100% = -100% (Bankrupt!)

This simple example illustrates that inverse ETFs are path dependent. In other words, holders take on convexity while holding this ETF. Unfortunately, they are short, not long.

Leveraged and inverse ETFs are ticking time bombs. If held long enough during a period of suitable volatility, there is a significant likelihood that holders will severely underperform their intended strategy.

In addition, the fund manager must constantly rehedge his portfolio at the end of each trading day. The more a manager trades, the more fees must be paid to investment banks and the exchange. These fees are passed on to the client.

The client is short gamma, underperforms the benchmark, and pays more in fees. Can you spot the sucker?

The Volocaust

Selling volatility has been the sure bet to riches for retail and institutional investors alike since 2009. The CBOE VIX futures market took off after the crisis, and enterprising ETF issuers began listing products to allow retail punters to participate in this esoteric corner of the financial markets.

Retail punters took to VIX ETFs like a Donald Trump to Propecia.

As volatility continued to collapse, exchange-traded notes (ETNs) and exchange-traded products (ETPs) that allowed retail investors to short VIX futures proliferated. Retail punters got a double whammy of goodness.

The first whammy: VIX futures contango. Because investors feared another 2008 market crash, they bid up call and put prices. This led to enhanced implied volatility, which meant VIX futures traded at a premium to spot. Because volatility continued to realise lower and lower, VIX futures sellers picked up that premium.

The second whammy: central banks, crushing all market volatility. At any hint of crisis, the printing press went spastic and punished shorts.

One of the most popular products was the VelocityShares Daily Inverse VIX Short-Term ETN (XIV, get it?) that Credit Suisse issued. XIV invests in the VIX short-term futures contracts, not the index itself. This is awesome when the market doesn’t move and the futures basis tends to zero, but if the term structure shifts dramatically higher, it will exacerbate the losses.

Things were going swell until the market dropped last week, and the VIX and its associated futures spiked. It went up so much that the net asset value (NAV) of the ETN declined by over 80% in one day. Remember, the ETN decreases in price if the VIX rises. There is a clause in the prospectus that allows the issuer to redeem the ETNs if the NAV drops by more than 80% in one trading session. Investors at that point get back what they can get back. Given that the short-term VIX futures basis spiked as well, these investors are pretty much guaranteed to receive a bagel.

Entire fortunes and accounts were destroyed overnight. Traders who saw steady profits as volatility ground lower were wiped out.

Bitcoin ain’t so volatile anymore

After witnessing a retail product that went from hero to zero in one trading session, how can any banker say with a straight face that crypto coins are too risky for retail investors? These same investment banks gladly structured toxic ETFs, ETNs, and ETPs that gutted the portfolios of those investors they claimed to care so much about.

Going long on Bitcoin could result in an investment worth nothing in the near or long-term future. But at least that is an investment with positive convexity. The maximum you can lose is what you put in, but the upside is infinity. Contrast that to any number of inverse ETFs. The maximum unlevered return is 100% and the maximum loss is also 100%. However, as I have shown, the path dependency of these products assures that you will underperform your benchmark in the long run.

If the banks that issue these carpet bombs also pooh-pooh Bitcoin, ignore them. The only reason why they don’t like crypto coins is that they have no way to profit from them. They don’t own the exchanges nor can they facilitate agency trading of these assets. A dollar invested into Bitcoin is a dollar not invested in the casino that they operate.

That negative attitude is changing fast. The “vampire squid” Goldman Sachs invested money in Circle, who just acquired Poloniex. It seems that crypto money isn’t that bad after all.

As compliance departments are browbeaten into allowing banks to trade crypto coins, the banks’ tone will shift. Suddenly, an allocation of crypto coins will be investment canon. Jamie Dimon and his ilk will flip-flop into crypto enthusiasts. But don’t hate on Jamie for dogging Bitcoin — he is just playing his part in the financial-markets theatre.

Bitcoin March/June calendar spread

The above chart shows the Bitcoin price and the annualised premium of the March (XBTH18) and June (XBTM18) Bitcoin/USD contract spread.

The calendar spread is calculated by the following function:

annualised premium = [(XBTM18 price - XBTH18 price) / Bitcoin spot] / 0.2493

0.2493 represents the annualized time value between the March and June expiry dates.

The calendar spread is a useful gauge of how bullish or bearish traders are in a forward starting-time period. In early February, Bitcoin lost close to 70% of its value measured against its December 2017 all-time high. The spread reached a low of 0.42% annualised during the same period.

Catching knives is deadly for most mortal traders. Some are able to bottom-tick the market, but they are few and far between. After rebounding close to 100% from the recent low of $6,000, the market has entered choppy waters.

Trading the chop is a skill in and of itself. The chop will take a healthy stack and make it look sickly before the next breakout happens. Therefore, using derivative spread trades with a view on the direction of the spot market is a better risk-adjusted way to express a view.

For those who believe we are in the midst of a full retrace back to $20,000, going long on the XBTM18/XBTH18 calendar spread is prudent. To go long, you must go long XBTM18 and simultaneously go short on XBTH18.

If the market indeed continues to push higher, XBTM18’s price will increase faster than that of XBTH18’s. That is because XBTM18 possesses more time value, so the interest-rate component will make up a significant percentage of its value relative to XBTH18.

This trade comes relatively cheap. Currently, the spread is trading at positive 3.15% annualised. Because the spread is positive, the trade has negative theta or time value. XBTH18 expires at the end of March. By the end of March, if XBTM18 doesn’t outperform, you will lose an outright 0.78%, making your daily theta 0.026%.

Historically, the quarterly contracts trade at a 30% to 40% annualised premium. If we assume the curve’s annualised premium stays constant, the calendar spread should trade at a similar premium. Therefore, in the upside scenario, we expect a 10-fold increase in the annualised calendar-spread premium.

The reason why you put this trade on rather than going naked long is that the market-to-market losses on this trade are capped at 0.78% unlevered. Imagine you bought Bitcoin at $10,000, then it crashed to $6,000. As a weak hand, you panic-sold the bottom. But the price quickly recovered back to $10,000, and even though your trade broke even over less than one month, you lost 40% because you could not mentally handle the mark to market.

With a calendar spread, you know from the outset your unlevered maximum loss. If you are uncomfortable with that loss a priori, you can refrain from putting on the trade.

For those who want to juice up the returns, add more leverage to both legs. However, be cognisant that BitMEX does not use portfolio margin — that is, gains in one contract will not offset your liquidation price on the other. You must monitor the liquidation price of the contract with an unrealised loss and continue to top up your account to avoid liquidation.

When I dip, you dip, we dip

BTFD was the rallying cry of crypto traders throughout 2017. The beginning of 2018 will test even the most stalwart HODLers. When is the right time to back up the truck? It surely wasn’t at $15,000, $10,000, or $8,000.

Trading both ways is intellectually challenging. The gains one made by faithfully adhering to one very profitable strategy can evaporate in days. Things change, and so should your trading strategy and mindset if you are actively punting crypto.

Because the financial media always needs a reason why crypto gyrates the way it does, they descend upon their trusted sources and hound them for any explanation at all. I will go through some of the reasons routinely put forward.

The CME and CBOE effects

The day the CME Bitcoin futures contract launched marked the top of this bull run. The BitMEX Bitcoin Index (.BXBT) flirted with $20,000 on that fateful morning. The following two months proved that it was an amazing top at which to short Bitcoin.

Now that large financial institutions could short Bitcoin by only posting USD, the thinking was/is that they will use their financial might to short Bitcoin into the ground. The first thing most financial reporters fail to understand is that on a futures exchange, there is a long for every short. By definition, a futures exchange has no net impact.

If the shorters at the margin are willing to accept lower prices than buyers at the margin, the contract will trade at a discount. At that point, market makers will be net buyers, and then sell or short-sell Bitcoin on the spot markets. If the open interest is sufficient large, then this backwardation can negatively affect the price.

The above is a graph of the open interest in XBTUSD since January 2018. It is relatively small. The maximum open interest over the period is $164 million.

Assume that all market makers are net long, which means they must short-sell Bitcoin spot to remain price neutral. That means that $164 million of Bitcoin must be sold. That is not a per-day flow but a stock of short Bitcoin positions. The spot market on exchange trades exceeds $1 billion per day. The OTC volume is unknown, but it is not insignificant.

The short pressure at its logical maximum emanating from the CME and CBOE contract holders is meaningless. Therefore, the effect on the broader market in actual flows is negligible. The contracts mainly bolster traders’ bullish sentiment.

In terms of trading volume, BitMEX continues to blow both of these contracts out of the water. In the year to date, the BitMEX XBTUSD, XBTH18, and XBTM18 products traded a combined $53.14 billion versus CME and CBOE combined Bitcoin futures volume of $4.48 billion. BitMEX is 12x more liquid.

Wall Street is shorting Bitcoin spot

The evil bankers can’t stand a coterie of misfits becoming millionaires and billionaires, so they crashed the party by aggressively shorting Bitcoin in the spot markets.

The large financial institutions do not own Bitcoin in large quantities, if at all. They are hamstrung by KYC/AML concerns surrounding Bitcoin. That means that if they wanted to sell Bitcoin, they would need to borrow it from a credible counterparty. Hey, Cumberland Mining, can we borrow $100 million of Bitcoin?

Assuming banks borrowed Bitcoin with the intention of shorting it, they would need to sell it on an exchange. Given the skittishness that inhibits counterparties globally from placing large amounts of capital on an exchange, I highly doubt any compliance department at a bulge-bracket bank would approve opening an account.

Let’s suspend reality and assume they allowed trading desks to open accounts on the largest Bitcoin spot exchanges. The maximum the desk could make is 100% if Bitcoin went to zero. But, if the market instead face-ripped them by 50% on a $100-million position, that loss would reach the global head of trading and of the investment bank.

If you were the line executive that green-lit that trade, you would lose your job. You shorted Bitcoin, and lost a huge sum of money. That would make it into the financial press; you and your bank would be ridiculed.

The career and operational risk of trading Bitcoin and then shorting it would dissuade any bank from acting.

Korea trading ban

After the Chinese passed the crypto trading baton to South Korea, all policy actions emanating from South Korean territory were closely watched. When a South Korean Department of Justice official proclaimed that they would attempt to ban crypto trading in Korea, the market crashed.

However, unlike China, there is legal due process in South Korea. Also unlike China, South Korea’s economy is open. When the dust settled, the legislators clarified that they merely wished to have more visibility into who was trading what. Korean punters must now use real-name accounts; minors and foreigners are prohibited from trading. This is hardly draconian or a ban on trading.

The South Korean government is captured by crypto. The country’s National Pension Fund even holds equity investments in many of the largest trading venues. Korea’s most successful technology startup, Kakao, owns the largest exchange by trading volume, Upbit. Is the government really going to torpedo an industry that millions of voters love, and an industry that is creating high-paying jobs? No. Your average Kim will keep the faith, and continue to trade crypto.

The exchanges were halted from accepting new accounts. That measure will be lifted sometime in February. With more new blood in the market, expect the negative sentiment to wane.

China bans crypto again

I don’t know why markets continue to react to negative policy announcements from China. The regulators instructed all financial institutions to do a self-assessment and ban any payments connected with crypto trading. This was in response to the rampant OTC trading occurring after they shut down public trading of crypto on the large exchanges.

While the on-ramp into crypto is more cluttered, Chinese punters will find ways to obtain any financial exposure they wish. If people can find a way to build illegal power plants in China, they can surely figure out how to buy and sell crypto against Beijing’s wishes.

Tether big-bang theory

Like many religions, the prelate deems us laypeople unworthy of speaking the their language of the gods. As such, the majority of the crypto world, myself included, has no idea how Tether works.

The CFTC subpoena relating to Bitfinex and Tether spooked the markets. However, I don’t believe this is a net negative event.

If Tether were in serious trouble, FinCEN and the US Treasury would be the agencies inquiring into its inner workings. If they wanted to shut it down, the first action would be a cease-and-desist order. Given that it was the CFTC that issued the subpoena and that Tethers continue to be created, what the agency is after most likely is not fatal to the currency.

Even if a cease-and-desist order were issued, that would cause a market spike in the value of most large-cap cryptos instead of a plunge. Traders who wished to receive any real value at all would sell Tether and buy any crypto they could.

The price of Bitcoin/Tether would spike, and this would drag the Bitcoin/USD value higher as well. This is similar to what happened when the banking issues on Bitfinex drove people to sell USD IOUs on Bitfinex and purchase Bitcoin, and then withdraw it. Bitfinex led the market higher, and the rest of the exchanges followed.

If you believe there is actually trouble in the Tether Hotel California, then go long on Bitcoin. But the market action suggests that the latest legal issues are benign.

What has fundamentally changed?

The prices of the entire crypto complex crumpled. However, on a year-over-year basis, Bitcoin is up multiple hundreds of percent. Maybe your favourite shitcoin isn’t, but that’s just the game. Don’t let CNBC fool you into buying tops and selling bottoms.

If the publicity surrounding this asset class diminishes, that could elongate the bear market. However, the financial presstitutes, as Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls them, are hooked on crypto. There is real pathos in this industry. The most-read financial stories will continue to be about this space and people therefore will continue to wonder what all the fuss is about. That will continue to drive new money into the system.

For short-term traders, the amount of new fiat entering the system is the most pressing concern. If you believe the correction results in no new blood entering, then as weak hands cash out they will drive prices lower on the margin. However crypto traders are volatility junkies. Once you trade crypto, even when the equity market “crashes” 5%, you merely brush it off your shoulders.

For long-term “investors”, nothing has changed about the technological merits of Bitcoin or your favourite shitcoin. Either the coin or token will be useful or it won’t. The market gyrations are irrelevant.

The only certainty is that price volatility will rise as the crypto complex is chopped into bits. For us crypto traders, this is going to be an amazing first quarter.

XBTH18: The main event

The launch of the new Bitcoin quarterly contract is always an exciting time. The basis, or lack thereof, points to trader excitement or apathy. As Bitcoin nears $20,000 and with the CBOE and the CME now on board, the basis gyrations of the BitMEX Bitcoin/USD 30 March 2018 futures will fascinate traders.

The leading factor in the basis movements will be the CBOE and more so the CME Bitcoin futures contracts.

The CME contract launches Monday morning Asia time. As a betting man, I predict the basis will move up and to the right in an aggressive fashion. This will carry XBTH18 basis higher as well. Those who cannot trade the CME contract will find that XBTH18 is a great way to play the most anticipated launch of a crypto-related product to date.

Strategy 1: Bullish on price and basis

For those who believe the price and basis will rise together, go long XBTH18. This the highest risk strategy I will propose, but also has the largest profit potential.

Strategy 2: Bullish on price and basis but delta neutral

For those who do not want to run naked Bitcoin delta, go long XBTH18 versus short XBTUSD. You make money on basis expansion via the long XBTH18 position. If the price and futures basis are rising, the XBTUSD swap will also trade at a premium. That means that as a short, you will receive funding.

This strategy is predicated on your view that the price will rise. The FOMO will invite buyers to pay a premium for the 100x leverage. This is what drives the futures basis and swap funding higher.

Strategy 3: Bullish on basis and delta neutral

This strategy is for those who believe that buyers will exert extreme pressure on the CME futures basis but who are not exactly sure whether the price will go up or down.

Traders should go long XBTH18 and short-spot Bitcoin. This trade only makes money if the XBTH18 basis increases.


Bitcoin moves are exaggerated over weekends when flat cash ceases to travel between exchanges. The FOMO before the CME launch will be legendary, thus it behooves traders to put these trades on as early as possible.

You don’t want to wake up Saturday morning, after a Volar session, to the XBTH18 basis trading a few percentage points higher. The time to buy is now.


I’ll take that

Building wealth is the easy part; securing and storing it for use by subsequent generations is difficult.

Half a millennium ago, a wealthy family needed a private army to secure its land and wealth. If you couldn’t project violence in the defence of your assets, they would be forcibly taken by an opportunistic person.

As civilisations evolved and we entered the age of the nation-state, society agreed that a centralised government should have a legal license to kill in order to secure the interests of property owners. Regardless of the economic “ism” that a government claims to practise, the goal is the same: protect a small group of asset holders against the hoard of commoners who might like to improve their lot at the expense of the elites.

Today, the richest humans don’t command standing armies, and their holdings include financial and real assets. Stock and bond ownership relies on a central depository to affirm that you indeed are the owner. Government deed offices proclaim that a piece of land or real estate is yours.

You are rich as long as the government allows you to be. The trappings of wealth can be taken at a whim. Should your actions upset a powerful state actor, your bank accounts will be frozen and your assets confiscated through the courts.

The recent Saudi corruption drive is case and point. Mohammad bin Salman (MBS), the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, is on a mission to wean the country off oil. This is more easily said than done, especially since the general population only complies because of generous government handouts. To beef up the government coffers, MBS did what all governments do: go after certain rich people.

MBS certainly wouldn’t subject himself to austerity. Last year, he purchased a yacht worth over $500 million while slashing government spending.

Overnight, some of the country’s richest members were herded to the Ritz Carlton, and placed under arrest owing to “corruption” charges. The most famous billionaire ensnared was Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, a world-famous investor with large stakes in some of the biggest global tech darlings.

After a few days cooped up in the Ritz, MBS presented his captives with a choice: liquidate your assets and give the Saudi government up to 70% or stay locked up. Even if a large percentage of a captive’s wealth were held offshore, information sharing between governments would likely allow MBS to know where the biggest nuggets are held. If he doesn’t think you have been forthcoming enough with the true state of your offshore wealth… — well, the Yemeni front line is awful fun these days.

Bitcoin presents a different way to secure wealth. Instead of trusting a government staffed with capricious humans, holders of Bitcoin trust cryptography and a decentralised network of profit-motivated miners.

Bitcoin is less than a decade old, and is still very much an experiment. But if you possess a sum of wealth, it is prudent to diversify the networks used to secure it. Many people believe that if they follow the “law”, they will be all right. However, laws change to serve the growth and power of the government writing them.

The government failures in Venezuela and Zimbabwe illustrate that in times of crisis Bitcoin can be used to grease the wheels of commerce. Unfortunately for most, it takes a time of crisis to elucidate the fatal flaws of a particular economic system. Only then will people take concrete actions, which only moments ago were diametrically opposed to their belief system. At that point, it’s too late.

BitMEX vs. CME futures guide

Bitcoin is at a watershed moment. The Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME), the largest exchange globally by notional traded, deemed Bitcoin worthy of a futures contract. The contract will allow investors to speculate on the Bitcoin/USD price without owning Bitcoin. Prior to this contract, derivatives traders were required to own Bitcoin in order to post margin on futures trading platforms such as BitMEX.

Due to the different client bases that BitMEX (retail) and the CME (professional investors) serve, the price discrepancies between two futures contracts with the same underlying will present enormous opportunities to generate arbitrage profits. This guide will walk traders through how to execute such trades.

Contract specs

Each CME contract is worth 5 Bitcoin (XBT), and is quoted in USD. Margin and profit and loss (PNL) are denominated in USD. This is what I refer to as a “linear contract structure”.

CME XBT value = 5 XBT * contracts
CME USD value = 5 XBT * price * contracts

Each BitMEX contract is worth 1 USD of Bitcoin, and is quoted in USD. Margin and PNL are denominated in XBT. This is what I refer to as an “inverse contract structure”.

BitMEX XBT value = 1/Price * 1 USD * contracts
BitMEX USD value = 1 USD * contracts

The above chart shows the XBT value of each contract. The CME contract has a fixed value in Bitcoin no matter the spot price. The BitMEX contract’s Bitcoin value follows a 1/x function. Technically speaking, the BitMEX multiplier is negative, even though in the graph uses a positive multiplier for a better visualisation.

Assume you are long 10,000 contracts at a price of $1,000.

XBT value = 1/$1,000 * -1 USD * 10,000 = -10 XBT

Now the price falls to $500.

XBT value = 1/$500 * -1 USD * 10,000 = -20 XBT

At a lower price, the XBT value is a larger negative number.

XBT PNL = -20 XBT - (-10 XBT) = -10 XBT

This means that the value in Bitcoin declines faster as the price falls, and increases slower as the price rises. That is negative gamma, or negative convexity.

The above chart shows the USD value of each contract. The CME contract’s USD value changes in a linear fashion with respect to the spot price (CME contract specs). The BitMEX contract’s USD value is fixed at $1 per contract.

Contract size

The CME contract is much larger in notional terms than BitMEX’s. If the price of Bitcoin is $8,000, one CME contract is worth $40,000. To achieve a similar notional on BitMEX requires 40,000 contracts.

When I touch on spread trades later, the much larger CME notional means that only traders with large amounts of capital can put on these trades. This limiting factor, along with the lower leverage offered by the CME, means that most retail traders will be unable to trade the CME product.


The first major difference between the two contracts is the underlying index. The CME settles on the CME CF Bitcoin Reference Rate. This index includes prices from Bitstamp, GDAX, itBit, and Kraken. BitMEX settles on the BitMEX Index that includes Bitstamp and GDAX.

Traders who hold either contract to expiry will need to familiarise themselves with each index, and at a minimum be able to trade on all four exchanges.

Both BitMEX and the CME expire on the last Friday of the contract month. However, BitMEX expires at 12:00 UTC, while the CME expires at 16:00 London Time which is either 16:00 UTC or 15:00 UTC depending on daylight saving time. Given that the expiry time differs by only three to four hours, there is little benefit to adjust the time value when computing relative basis.


Bitcoin is a call option. The more volatile it is, the more valuable the option. Due to an infinite upside, and a capped downside at zero, the trading pressure on the margin comes from longs. That means that market makers who are price neutral will usually be short derivatives. Their propensity to quote an offer depends on how easily it is to purchase spot Bitcoin and how their short derivative is margined.

As I previously mentioned, the BitMEX contract is margined in XBT. That means that shorts can purchase spot Bitcoin and use this as collateral against their BitMEX short. If you buy $1,000 of Bitcoin, deposit the full XBT notional with BitMEX, then short 1,000 BitMEX contracts, you cannot be liquidated if the price rises.

BitMEX shorts, due to the inverse contract structure, are long gamma in XBT terms. That means that as the price rises, their unrealised losses increase less quickly. Therefore, BitMEX shorts can use more leverage than they otherwise would if the contract used a linear contract structure.

Contrast that with the CME, which margins the contract in USD. A market maker who is short cannot use their spot Bitcoin hedge as margin at the CME. As the price rises, their Bitcoin is worth more; however, those unrealised USD gains cannot be deposited as margin. The CME will demand more USD collateral as the unrealised losses mount.

This makes shorting the CME contract very capital intensive. A priori, I expect the CME contract to trade more expensive than BitMEX. CME shorts need to be compensated via a higher basis for their implicit short volatility position.

The CME intends to list a futures curve out to one year. The back end of the curve, due to a larger time value, will be illiquid when compared to the front months, and will trade at a very high basis.

I will now present two spread trades. Assume that you are a USD-based investor.

Spread trade: Long BitMEX vs. short CME

Assume the following:

leverage: 5x / initial margin of 20%

Spot = $8,000
BitMEX = $8,000
Contracts = long 200,000
CME = $10,000
Contracts = short 6
Spread = $2,000

First, compute the XBT and USD exposures.

On BitMEX:

XBT exposure: 200,000 long contracts / $8,000 = +25 XBT
USD exposure: 200,000 long contracts * 1 USD = -$200,000
margin requirement: 20% * 25 XBT = 5 XBT
collateral currency exposure vs. USD: +5 XBT / -$40,000 (valued at the spot price)


XBT exposure: 6 short contracts * 5 XBT = -30 XBT
USD exposure: 6 short contracts * 5 XBT * $10,000 = +$300,000
margin requirement: 20% * $300,000 = $60,000
collateral currency exposure vs. USD = 0

Because you are a USD-based investor, you must ensure that you do not have XBT/USD risk at any time. Due to the XBT BitMEX margin requirement, you must short one additional CME contract to hedge the 5 XBT margin required on BitMEX.

Margin XBT/USD price risk:

BitMEX: +5 XBT / -$40,000
CME: -5 XBT / +$50,000 (short 1 contract)
Net: 0 XBT / +$10,000

Due to the CME’s higher basis, we earn carry on the BitMEX XBT collateral.

Spread XBT/USD price risk:

BitMEX: +25 XBT / -$200,000 (long 200,000 contracts)
CME: -25 XBT / +$250,000 (short 5 contracts)
Net: 0 XBT / +$50,000

As predicted, we earn $50,000 PNL from this spread trade. The table below stresses the portfolio on a large up and down move.

$4,000 -25.00 XBT -$100,000 $150,000 $50,000
$8,000 0.00 XBT $0 $50,000 $50,000
$16,000 12.50 XBT $200,000 -$150,000 $50,000

The trade continues to return $50,000 regardless of the price movement. However, this is a leveraged trade so we must post additional margin on either BitMEX or the CME, depending on the price move.

The table below summarises what actions must be taken to ensure we meet margin requirements.

Margin Action Currency Needed
Price Falls Buy then deposit XBT on BMEX, sell CME contracts XBT & USD
Price Rises Deposit USD to CME USD

Because we are short gamma on our long BitMEX position, we must post XBT and sell CME contracts to hedge the XBT collateral. Both of these derivatives require additional margin. On the upside, we only need to post additional USD with the CME. Depending on your cost of capital, a prolonged down move without any recovery could become very expensive.

Another issue is the sizing of this trade. Each CME contract is worth 5 XBT. If you wish to remain price neutral on your XBT collateral, a 5 XBT loss needs to be a small % with respect to your trade notional. Otherwise you will always be over and under hedged. The below table illustrates this point.

entry price: $8,000
multiplier: -1 USD (for inverse contracts the multiplier is actually negative)

Contracts XBT Value Down % Move Up % Move
50,000 -6.25 XBT $4,444.44 -44.44% $40,000.00 400.00%
250,000 -31.25 XBT $6,896.55 -13.79% $9,523.81 19.05%
500,000 -62.50 XBT $7,407.41 -7.41% $8,695.65 8.70%
1,000,000 -125.00 XBT $7,692.31 -3.85% $8,333.33 4.17%
2,500,000 -312.50 XBT $7,874.02 -1.57% $8,130.08 1.63%
5,000,000 -625.00 XBT $7,936.51 -0.79% $8,064.52 0.81%

The “% Move” is a measure of how far the price needs to move up or down to generate a contract value change of 5 XBT. As you can see, go big or go home.

Spread trade: Short BitMEX vs. long CME

Assume the following:

leverage: 5x / initial margin of 20%

Spot = $8,000
BitMEX = $10,000
Contracts = Short 250,000
CME = $8,000
Contracts = Long 5
Spread = $2,000

First, compute the XBT and USD exposures.

On BitMEX:

XBT exposure: 250,000 short contracts / $10,000 = -25 XBT
USD exposure: 250,000 short contracts * 1 USD = +$250,000
margin requirement: 20% * 25 XBT = 5 XBT
collateral currency exposure vs. USD: +5 XBT / -$40,000

In order to hedge the 5 XBT of margin required, sell an additional 50,000 BitMEX contracts.

XBT exposure: 50,000 short contracts / $10,000 = -5 XBT
USD exposure: 50,000 short contracts * 1 USD = +$50,000
net: 0 XBT / $10,000


XBT exposure: 5 long contracts * 5 XBT = +25 XBT
USD exposure: 5 long contracts * 5 XBT * $8,000 = -$200,000
margin requirement: 20% * $200,000 = $40,000
collateral currency exposure vs. USD = 0

Spread XBT/USD price risk:

BitMEX: -25 XBT / +$250,000 (short 250,000 contracts)
CME: +25 XBT / -$200,000 (long 5 contracts)
net: 0 XBT / +$50,000

As predicted, we earn $50,000 PNL from this spread trade. The below table stresses the portfolio on a large up and down move.

$4,000 37.50 XBT $150,000 -$100,000 $50,000
$8,000 6.25 XBT $50,000 $0 $50,000
$16,000 -9.38 XBT -$150,000 $200,000 $50,000

The trade continues to return $50,000 regardless of the price movement. However, this is a leveraged trade so we must post additional margin on either BitMEX or the CME depending on the price move.

The table below summarises what actions must be taken to ensure we meet margin requirements.

Margin Action Currency Needed
Price Falls Deposit USD to CME USD
Price Rises Buy then deposit XBT on BMEX, sell BMEX contracts XBT

Because you have positive gamma on the short BitMEX position, you will not face a doubling of margin requirements when the price falls. This spread trade is more capital efficient; however, I doubt whether BitMEX will frequently trade more expensive than the CME for reasons described above.

Gap risk

The CME does not trade over the weekend. Longs or shorts depending on the price action over the weekend, could be insta-rekt when the exchange reopens Sunday night US time.

Interactive Brokers, one of the CME’s clearing members, expressed severe reservations about this product due to the high volatility. They are scared shitless about how to deal with underwater shorts. It is not impossible for Bitcoin to gap up 100% in a matter of hours on positive news. Imagine what will happen when an ETF finally is approved.

BitMEX deals with gap risk via auto-deleveraging. The CME at the present moment cannot employ a socialised loss feature. Instead, clearing members must pony up the cash. That is why they are being such scaredy cats.

Depending on your broker, margin requirements for short positions could be extremely unforgiving. This will push CME basis up even further, and make putting on the spread trade, described above, even more expensive.

Are you yellow?

Arbitraging BitMEX versus the CME requires a high level of trading sophistication and attention to detail. The different margin currencies and policies present many opportunities to transform what is a sure profit into a massive loss.

However, owing to their difficulty, these spread trades will be juicy. For students of markets, this is an arbitrage opportunity of a lifetime. Those who put in the time to perfect these strategies will profit handsomely.

Smell That?

The putrid smell of Bitcoin shorts’ carcasses just became more pungent. The Bitcoin price pump from below $3,000 to almost $6,000 in under one month is truly astounding.

In that span of time China shut down three of the world’s largest exchanges. The New York Agreement signatories proceeded further with the scheduled SegWit2x hard fork. And heads of large banking institutions called Bitcoin a fraud.

Where to from here? How high can Bitcoin go? Is this just a flash of greatness to be followed by a century of misery?

The clues to the future of Bitcoin lie in the global currency and debt markets. The money printing orgy that allows central banks to monetise the debt of governments and large corporates created the environment for Bitcoin to thrive. Therefore, an examination of the total stock of money and government debt could give clues to the future price of Bitcoin.

From Investopedia:

M2 is a measure of the money supply that includes all elements of M1 as well as “near money.” M1 includes cash and checking deposits, while near money refers to savings deposits, money market securities, mutual funds and other time deposits.

The government debt statistics are in USD billions were obtained from a Bank of International Settlements report. The data is as of 30 June 2017.

Money is not just M2, but in our financialised world, sovereign-credit acts as a very important monetary instrument. It is why many economists label the currency system a debt-based monetary system.

Other debt instruments such as corporate debt, provincial or municipal debt also function as money. Each country is different in the ways in which other types of debt function as money. To remain consistent I only considered government issued debt.

Gold (XAU) is the analogue “I don’t trust the government” monetary instrument. Bitcoin (XBT) appears to be the digital version. For gold and Bitcoin I used the current value of the total supply of each currency as its M2 value. For government debt, each has a value of 0.

The above chart depicts the relative size of M2 + Government Debt for the four most important fiat currencies (USD, EUR, JPY, and CNY), Gold, and Bitcoin. The first salient observation is that Bitcoin’s market value barely registers on the graph vs. these larger currencies.

Debt must be paid back at some point with base money, M2. Therefore the more debt a country has vs. it’s base money, the more leveraged their financial system. Governments usually don’t worry about how debt will be repaid because they can continue to issue new debt to pay off old.

However, when the market refuses to roll over debt an affordable interest rate, debt must be extinguished. One theory of how overly indebted governments could reduce the Debt / M2 leverage ratio is to tender debt-backed money at higher and higher prices for real money such as gold. Paul Brodsky in Apropos of Everything I, II, and III lays out an excellent argument for why central banks would extinguish debt-money vs. gold. I don’t believe it is likely that central banks will add Bitcoin to their pool of assets. The more likely scenario is that inflation sensitive investors will tender their debt-money for a relatively cheap real digital monetary instrument such as Bitcoin.

The only reason Bitcoin deserves treatment in is this thought experiment is that against all odds, it is still here after 9 years. The price after falling 80% from 2013 highs to 2015 lows, is now almost 5x higher than the previous 2013 all time high. The other positive aspect is that after years of ignoring Bitcoin, many financial institutions are investigating how they can play the game.

The aggregate amount of government debt outstanding for the four fiat currencies listed is $38,334 billion. At current prices, gold and Bitcoin are worth 20% and 0.25% of the aggregate government debt respectively.

If Bitcoin is digital gold, than theoretically it could reach the same ratio as gold relative to aggregate government debt. That implies a Bitcoin price of $461,333 or an 80x increase in price.

Modesty is a virtue. Assume that Bitcoin achieves a 1% valuation relative to aggregate government debt. That results in a price of $23,065 or a 4x return from current levels.

The battle for $10,000 is one of perception. Bitcoin is still not very useful as a pure monetary transaction instrument given its price volatility. However as a store of value, if savers view it as a hard form of digital money, they will diversify out of debt-money into Bitcoin. This psychological transformation is underway. The longer the price stays at these levels, the more people will believe Bitcoin will exist decades in the future.

Trading ShitCoin2x

The underlying index for BitMEX futures and swaps contracts on Bitcoin / USD and Bitcoin / JPY will not include the SegWit2x coin (B2X). Theoretically the futures and swaps should trade at a discount to reflect the B2X dividend received by all holders of Bitcoin on the ex-date. My trading thesis is that similar to the Bitcoin Cash hard fork, the futures and swaps will behave as expected.

Savvy and unemotional traders made significant profits without taking any price risk by taking advantage of the market dislocations. The following trade ideas will focus on the XBT/USD spot market, the XBTUSD swap, and the XBTZ17 futures contract.

Trades Pre-Fork

Given the market knows that BitMEX will not adjust the underlying indices, XBTZ17’s basis will trade lower to reflect the implied value of B2X. Thankfully due the current bull market, XBTZ17 trades at a positive basis. This is a perfect entry point for the following trade.

Sell XBTZ17 vs. Buy spot Bitcoin

A few exchanges (Coinbase & Bitfinex) have already announced that they will disperse B2X to all holders of Bitcoin on the ex-date in a 1:1 ratio. Therefore, once the spread is put on, the physical Bitcoin purchased as a hedge should be sent to any exchange that will split the coins for you. This allows you to sell any B2X received immediately. He who sells first, sells best.

On the ex-date (expected to be on or around November 20th), you will receive B2X in a 1:1 ratio. These B2X coins should be immediately sold for USD. At the same time, the futures should trade at a discount or negative basis. The short futures position must covered, and the physical Bitcoin hedge sold as well for USD.

Initial Trade:

Short XBTZ17
Long XBT

At Fork Time:

Receive B2X

Trade Unwind Proceedure:

Close XBTZ17, by buying
Sell XBT
Sell B2X

Trade Profit and Loss

Because you were able to enter the futures vs. spot trade at a positive basis, the B2X you sold is pure profit. Also, because you were able to cover the futures contracts at negative basis you will pick up additional basis related profit.

If the futures are trading at a discount when you entered the spread, then you must predict whether the percentage discount is less than the expected B2X / Bitcoin ratio. Or you must have a longer term positive view on the value of B2X.

What Can Go Wrong

If you entered the futures vs. spot trade at a positive basis and the fork does not occur, you will still profit. However, you will be required to hold the spread until expiry in late December. Depending on your hurdle rate, this opportunity cost may outweigh the basis profit received.

If you entered the futures vs. spot trade at a negative basis and the fork does not occur, you will post a loss in the amount of the negative basis.

When you unwind the futures vs. spot spread, the futures contract might trade at a large positive basis. If this happens, you must hold the spread until expiry. The only thing you lose is opportunity cost on the capital tied up in the position.

Right Before and During the Fork Trades

In the hours preceding the Bitcoin Cash fork, the XBTUSD swap traded at a large discount, and the funding was negative. A negative funding rate means that shorts pay longs. This discount is due to traders selling XBTUSD vs. buying Bitcoin spot right before the ex-date so they can “create” B2X without any price risk.

Or traders fearful of negative consequences for Bitcoin due the hard fork are locking in the USD value of their physical coins. The XBTZ17 futures contract will also be sold such that it exhibits a negative basis as well.

Traders may earn the B2X USD value synthetically by taking these countertrades.

Buy XBTUSD vs. Short Bitcoin spot

Profit is earned two ways. Firstly, XBTUSD’s basis will swing from negative to flat in the hours after the fork. Your are long the basis, therefore you profit. Secondly, the funding rate is negative. You will earn Bitcoin interest ever 8 hours while the rate is negative.

Buy XBTZ17 vs. Short Bitcoin spot

XBTZ17 should trade with a negative basis as well. Traders can purchase the futures contract, and sell it hours after the ex-date once the basis rebounds.

The one wrinkle to these trades is where to short Bitcoin spot. This is a very important consideration. If the exchange where you short Bitcoin forces shorts to deliver B2X, then the trade should not be put on. Additionally, borrow rates for Bitcoin will spike shortly before the ex-date. It is entirely possible that borrow fees eclipse the basis and funding profit earned on the long XBTUSD position.

Most exchanges that offer margin trading will not force shorts to deliver or cover B2X. Forcing a large number of shorts to cover in the illiquid B2X spot market could be disastrous. Therefore, most exchanges will not credit Bitcoin lenders with B2X or force Bitcoin shorts to deliver B2X.