The first bitcoin futures started trading Sunday, sparking a swift run-up in the price of the digital currency as the exchange provider’s website experienced outages from heavy traffic.
Trading of the hotly anticipated U.S. bitcoin futures began at 6 p.m. Eastern Standard Time on Sunday on an exchange run by Cboe Global Markets Inc., while its larger rival CME Group Inc. plans to introduce its own bitcoin futures a week later.
The bitcoin contract expiring in January opened at $ 15,000 and rose to $ 16,660 within the first six minutes of trading, an 11% surge. About 1,000 contracts changed hands in the first three hours of trade.
On Monday morning in London, the contract was changing hands at $ 17,500. Bitcoin itself was at $ 16,635.05, according to CoinDesk, having risen in the first minutes of futures trading.
The exchange halted trading Sunday for two minutes at 8:31 p.m. because ofvolatility, a spokeswoman for Cboe said. The exchange operator can impose such halts after a 10% price swing.
Interest in the futures caused problems for Cboe’s website. “Due to heavy traffic on our website, visitors to www.cboe.com may find that it is performing slower than usual and may at times be temporarily unavailable. All trading systems are operating normally,” a Cboe spokeswoman said.
The launch of the bitcoin futures represents a milestone for the digital currency. But the new market could be roiled by hacks, technical snafus or manipulation schemes.
One risk, critics say, is that the underlying markets for bitcoin are largely unregulated and have a troubled history. Mt. Gox, once the largest bitcoin exchange, collapsed in 2014 after being robbed of more than $ 470 million of bitcoin. Other bitcoin exchanges have faced criminal charges of money laundering.
“The Bitcoin cash markets are immature and hardly seem the epitome of robustness,” Craig Pirrong, a finance professor at the University of Houston, wrote in a blog post.
Bitcoin has been the best-performing asset in financial markets in 2017. The launch of bitcoin futures comes as a confluence of economic, financial and cultural developments has spurred a rise of more than 1,500% this year in the price of the digital currency.
But the futures’ launch has cast a spotlight on the market’s shaky foundations. Bitcoin exchanges were plagued with glitches in recent weeks, even as the price of the virtual currency soared to records—passing $ 17,000 on Thursday, from just $ 968.23 at the start of the year, according to CoinDesk.
For their futures products, Cboe and CME are betting that a handful of bitcoin exchanges are sufficiently reliable and trustworthy to support a derivatives market.
Still, recent mishaps have raised questions about whether bitcoin exchanges are ready for prime time. On Nov. 29, heavy trading sparked by bitcoin breaking through $ 10,000 the previous evening caused outages at Bitstamp and GDAX, among other exchanges.
All five bitcoin exchanges working with Cboe or CME have taken steps to embrace regulation and anti-money-laundering laws. Their representatives said the industry had matured. “Exchanges that weren’t up to a certain standard, due to incompetence, have died out,” said Bitstamp Chief Executive Nejc Kodrič.
Some critics warn that unscrupulous traders could push around the price of bitcoin on the bitcoin exchanges, manipulating prices in the underlying market to reap profits from the futures.
“Bang-the-settlement type manipulations are a major concern,” Mr. Pirrong wrote. “Relatively small volumes of purchases or sales could move the price around substantially.”
The bitcoin exchanges partnering with Cboe and CME account for a narrow slice of the market. That means a manipulator wouldn’t need to move the price of bitcoin world-wide, just on a small number of exchanges.
CME’s four partner exchanges together handle roughly 10% of daily global bitcoin volume, according to coinhills.com, though they account for about a third of bitcoin trading in dollars, which CME argues is the more important measure.
CME says it has taken steps to combat manipulation. The index that underpins its futures contract is based on trades executed over a one-hour period each day, with anomalous trades tossed out. CME also is working to add more bitcoin exchanges to its index, a CME spokeswoman said.
Cboe’s contract uses a price determined in a daily auction at Gemini. Gemini data show its daily auction volumes this year have averaged $ 1.3 million—a drop in the bucket of global bitcoin trading, which runs into the billions of dollars daily. Gemini’s auction process also has failed to produce a price several times in recent months, on lightly traded weekends or holidays.
Gemini says its auction will gain in volume as Cboe’s bitcoin futures contract takes off, and even if the auction is small relative to global trading activity, it offers a useful measure of bitcoin’s price at one point in time each day. “Auction mechanisms are tried and true,” said Gemini President Cameron Winklevoss.
Still, even some cryptocurrency veterans aren’t convinced that the market is ready for the bitcoin futures planned by CME and Cboe.
“It’s premature,” said Paul Chou, CEO of LedgerX, a startup trading platform for bitcoin options that competes with CME and Cboe. If the exchange giants’ efforts stumble, it could create “a new headline risk that could set us back months or years,” he said.
—Telis Demos, Peter Rudegeair, Paul Vigna and Georgi Kantchev contributed to this article.
Appeared in the December 11, 2017, print edition as ‘Bitcoin Futures Start, Site Falters.’