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INTERNATIONAL - The seminal financial event of this year, the current decade, and possibly our generation, is here: futures trading in bitcoin has begun.

But the derivative that would really damp the current crypto frenzy and make digital tokens a speculator-friendly - if not investment-worthy - commodity, currency, tulip, or whatever, is not futures. It is options.

It’s hard to see how even existing futures trading rules can deal with something as volatile as bitcoin. Cboe Global Markets began offering them on Sunday, and soon they will be available on CME Group. Brokers, including E* Trade Financial, TD Ameritrade Holding and Ally Financial, will probably follow suit.

But as Lily Katz of Bloomberg News notes, if Thursday’s price movements were to be mirrored in futures contracts, trading would have to be paused or suspended a number of times throughout the day.

The hope is that this chaotic state of affairs will change. Once it's possible for large pools of institutional liquidity to bet against an irrationally high (or low) futures price in relation to the spot, the latter will also steady.

To speed up stabilisation, though, you need options. A one-month futures price of, say, $16 000 (R218000) only tells you that if you sell a bitcoin when it’s going for $16704, and buy a futures contract expiring in a month, you're effectively earning a bitcoin rate of interest of 57percent, annualised.

Whether investors judge that to be too high or too low, given all the other interest rates in the economy, including, most importantly, the US dollar one of 1.52 percent, will see spot and futures prices adjust accordingly.

That discovery would be a lot quicker if extreme views - those who think bitcoin will be $100000 in a month and those who bet it’ll be $1000 - get squeezed out of the market.


What futures prices will not tell us is the dispersion of expectations and their probabilities. Pelham Smithers Associates and Albert Maass have done a useful analysis of bitcoin options on futures contracts that currently trade on Deribit, a European derivatives bourse for the digital currency.

They constructed an at-the-money “straddle” around a strike price of $12 000 on last Tuesday by buying two bitcoin put options for that amount and one call.

The structure would only make money if the March futures price went above $18000 in a month (ie, by early January), or fell to $9000 or less. Bitcoin options, in their current form, only reward expectations of abnormality: a price gain of 50percent or more, or an erosion of at least 25percent, in one month.

As the analysts noted, “options are so rich, you need a big move up or down in bitcoin to justify their price”.

A straddle on the British pound, by contrast, would make money if the exchange rate moved by just 2percent either side.

Put another way, extreme views are ruling bitcoin. The only antidote is to have a mainstream venue like CME or Cboe offer options, so that irrational exuberance (or pessimism) is edged out.

Exchanges, however, are already getting flak, including from some of the world's biggest derivatives brokers, for rushing the contracts to market without thinking through the risks.

For the foreseeable future, bitcoin options look set to remain a boutique parlour game, where cranks will dominate. That's a missed opportunity to tame this beast.