Do you remember, like, two weeks ago, when people were talking about how the launch of bitcoin futures at Cboe Global Markets Inc. and CME Group Inc. would allow for efficient short-selling of bitcoin and finally deflate the bubble? Smart hedge-fund money was lining up to bet against bitcoin, the thinking went, but had no convenient way to do it on the actual bitcoin exchanges. The only people trading bitcoin were the true believers, so of course it kept going up, but once it was opened up to normal financial players that would end. “The futures reduce the frictions of going short more than they do of going long, so it’s probably net bearish,” said Craig Pirrong.
Well since then bitcoin is up more than 50 percent; it reached a record of $19,511 early Monday, hours after CME launched its futures contract. “Bitcoin Climbs as Futures Debut Fails to Incite Attack by Shorts,” is the Bloomberg headline about Sunday’s start of trading on CME. On the other hand, bitcoin was actually down a bit on the first full day of CME trading yesterday, and fell further overnight; “Bitcoin Futures Prices Fall in CME Debut” is the Wall Street Journal headline about Monday’s trading. It is of course still very early days for the futures, and it’s still possible that the shorts will come in and drive the price down. I guess it’s even possible bitcoin bulls and bears will both flock to the futures market and trade with each other to find an efficient and stable price that reflects bitcoin’s fundamental value, whatever that is.
One part of the story here is that the futures seem to be mostly useful in reducing the frictions of going long:
“One of the biggest issues when it comes to investing institutionally in digital assets is banks and larger institutions can’t hold an unregulated instrument in their balance sheet, and a futures contract is something they can hold,” said Gabor Gurbacs, director of digital-asset strategy at VanEck Associates Corp. With futures, “you don’t hold the physical bitcoin, which solves custody issues and counterparty risks with these less-regulated exchanges.”
The introduction of futures didn’t lead to a wave of hedge-fund money shorting bitcoin. It led to retail and institutional money going long bitcoin. We talked last week about the spread between Cboe’s bitcoin futures price and the actual price of bitcoin, which was wider than $1,000 for a while. The spread has tightened considerably — as of 8:15 a.m. today, the CME futures traded at $18,585, Cboe futures at $18,670, and spot bitcoin at about $18,245, for a spread of about 2 percent — but it still exists. Why would you pay more for a synthetic bitcoin in a month than you would for an actual bitcoin today? The answer, presumably, is that the synthetic bitcoin is more valuable to you: You want bitcoin exposure, but you’d prefer to get it through a standardized contract on a regulated exchange that settles in dollars.
Here is Jayanth Varma on bitcoin futures and arbitrage:
When cash markets are not functioning well, cash and carry arbitrage (and its reverse) futures markets may make the underlying asset accessible to more people. It is possible that A is bullish on bitcoin, but does not wish to go through the hassles of creating a wallet and storing it safely. At the same time, B might be comfortable with bitcoin wallets, but might be unwilling to take bitcoin price risk. Then B can buy bitcoin spot and sell cash settled bitcoin futures to A; the result is that A obtains exposure to bitcoin without creating a bitcoin wallet, while B obtains a risk free investment (a synthetic T-bill). Similarly, suppose C wishes to bet against bitcoin, but does not have the ability to short it; while D has no views on bitcoin, but has sufficient access to the cash market to be able to short bitcoin. Then D can take a risk free position by shorting bitcoin in the cash market and buying bitcoin futures from C who obtains a previously unavailable short position.
Since the introduction of futures, the price of bitcoin has gone up, suggesting that there were more As — people who wanted to be long bitcoin synthetically — than Cs — people who wanted to be short synthetically — though again it is still early. Crudely speaking, the arbitrage spread suggests that there are also more As than Bs: There are a lot of people who want to be long bitcoin without owning bitcoin, but not so many people who want to own bitcoin without being long bitcoin. (Which makes sense! If you bought a bitcoin and sold a futures contract when Cboe launched its futures last week, you could have locked in a risk-free arbitrage profit of something like $1,200. But if you had just bought a bitcoin, you’d be up about $3,000 by now.) The costs of trading actual bitcoins on bitcoin exchanges — in terms of blockchain transaction costs, exchange withdrawal limits, etc. — are significant enough that people who want bitcoin exposure are willing to pay about 2 percent to avoid them.
You could imagine the spread going the other way, though. If everyone really was clamoring to short bitcoin, and if the futures offered a more convenient way to do it than the bitcoin exchanges, then you’d expect the short sellers to pay a premium to short via futures. Instead of selling a bitcoin at $18,000 today, they’d be willing to sell a synthetic bitcoin for $17,500, paying the spread to an arbitrageur who was willing to do the actual shorting for them. But the fact that the spread is mostly positive, and that bitcoin’s price has been mostly going up, suggests that the demand has mostly been for synthetic long positions, not short.
Tales from the bubble.
Here is the story of Longfin Corp., a fin-tech-ish company that was listed on Nasdaq on Wednesday and then announced on Friday that it was acquiring Ziddu.com, “a blockchain-empowered global micro-lending solutions provider,” causing its stock to go up by more than 1,200 percent and giving it a market capitalization of some $6.2 billion as of yesterday’s close. LongFin’s offering circular is a fun read — it describes its founder and chief executive officer, who also happens to be the controlling shareholder of Ziddu.com, as “a financial wizard” and “a true believer in disruptive technologies” who “believes that every piece of information is worth millions” — but even better is the press release describing the Ziddu acquisition:
Ziddu Coin is a smart contract that enables SME’s, processors, manufacturers, importers and exporters using cryptocurrencies across continents. Ziddu Coins are loosely pegged to Ethereum and Bitcoin. The importers/exporters convert offered Ziddu coins into Ethereum or Bitcoin and use the proceeds for their working capital needs. At the end of the contract, importers/exporters will realize their proceeds and pay back their funds through cryptocurrencies only. Depending upon the risk profile of the counterparty, the interest will vary from 12% to 48%.
Yes but … in cryptocurrencies? If you had borrowed 100 bitcoins to finance your working capital needs a year ago, you’d have financed about $79,000 worth of working capital. If you had to pay back 112 bitcoins today, that would come to a bit over $2 million, a dollar interest rate of over 2,400 percent. (If you’d borrowed ether you’d be paying over 12,000 percent.) Unless your working capital was bitcoin, you will not be able to pay back that loan. The lesson here is: Probably don’t borrow an asset caught in a massive speculative frenzy to fund your working capital needs.
Look, you and I are sophisticated, and we get that “bitcoin’s price increase is deflationary and makes it a bad currency” is not a good argument against bitcoin, because “bitcoin is a bad currency” is not a good argument against bitcoin. (People keep making it though.) Bitcoin’s value proposition — much like that of gold — is that it is an uncorrelated store of value, not that it is useful for buying a sandwich. But at the same time you have to watch out for business models that are based on the casual assumption that bitcoin works just like a currency. “Cryptocurrency-financed warehouse lending” has the word “cryptocurrency” in it, so it’s worth billions of dollars, but I’m not sure it works as a business model.
Elsewhere, here is the story of block.one, which “has raised about $700 million and counting” by selling EOS tokens that it says “do not have any rights, uses, purpose, attributes, functionalities or features.” Block.one is using the money to build “a new blockchain architecture designed to enable vertical and horizontal scaling of decentralized applications,” as its white paper explains, and the white paper also includes a disclaimer in bold capitals:
PLEASE NOTE: CRYPTOGRAPHIC TOKENS REFERRED TO IN THIS WHITE PAPER REFER TO CRYPTOGRAPHIC TOKENS ON A LAUNCHED BLOCKCHAIN THAT ADOPTS THE EOS.IO SOFTWARE. THEY DO NOT REFER TO THE ERC-20 COMPATIBLE TOKENS BEING DISTRIBUTED ON THE ETHEREUM BLOCKCHAIN IN CONNECTION WITH THE EOS TOKEN DISTRIBUTION.
That is: You can (eventually) use the EOS operating system to launch blockchain applications, and those blockchain applications can use tokens, but they won’t use the EOS tokens, which — again — “do not have any rights, uses, purpose, attributes, functionalities or features.” No one believes it though:
Matthew Roszak, one of block.one’s early investors, said EOS holders shouldn’t worry too much about the warnings the company has given about the tokens. “I don’t think it’s fair reading into that language too tightly,” he said. Given the “regulatory environment is as clear as mud,” he said block.one needed to write something to provide the broadest protection possible.
It is hard to believe that anyone commits securities fraud anymore. Right now you can design an electronic token, say in big bold letters that the token is utterly useless, and raise $700 million selling it to people who “don’t think it’s fair reading into that language too tightly.” Why bother to scam anyone?
Still elsewhere, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, in a footnote, quoted me saying “Just because you mumble the word ‘blockchain’ doesn’t make otherwise illegal things legal,” which I hope is now an official CFTC position. And here is Tyler Cowen on bitcoin volatility and Siegel’s paradox: “Volatility is a feature of Bitcoin, not a bug, and that is in part for reasons that have nothing to do with speculation or bubbliness, but rather follow from the contours of the utility function.” And: “No, a Guy Didn’t Scam $1 Million by Selling Chuck E. Cheese Tokens as Bitcoins.”
And in ICOs.
“It’s certainly not a scam,” cryptocurrency startup Centra’s general counsel said last month about its $30 million initial coin offering, which is not a sentence you’d ideally want your general counsel to have to say to the press. (He said it after Centra’s co-founders left the company due to a New York Times profile describing their run-ins with the law and pointing to possibly inaccurate statements about their ICO, which was touted by Floyd Mayweather and DJ Khaled and which, again, raised $30 million.)
Some Centra investors have their doubts, and a plaintiffs’ law firm has brought a class action complaint against Centra demanding the investors’ money back. The complaint is fun — Centra had a “Blog/Media Bounty” program to “Reward Experienced Writers who write quality Reviews, Articles About the Centra Project and the ICO crowdsale” — but not that fun, because the plaintiffs’ lawyers don’t actually need to prove that Centra was a scam. Their job is much easier: All they need to do is prove that the tokens Centra sold in its initial coin offering were securities. If they were securities, they were sold illegally: They were offered publicly without being registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission, or being exempt from registration. And one remedy for the illegal sale of securities is that the buyers can demand their money back — whether or not Centra is legitimate, whether or not it is actually using the money to build a cryptocurrency debit card, whether or not it made any misleading statements in the ICO.
Were Centra’s tokens securities? Well, yes, obviously. We talked last week about the Securities and Exchange Commission’s enforcement action against Munchee, an initial coin offering vaguely similar to Centra’s in that it featured “utility tokens” to be used in a blockchain ecosystem that did not yet exist, sold on promises of speculative returns. The SEC brusquely and correctly dismissed the notion that such “utility tokens” were not securities, and I suspect any court will agree. Also, while Centra occasionally remembered to call its tokens “utility-based tokens” and “not securities, shares or investments,” it often forgot. From the complaint:
On October 27, 2017, The New York Times published an article discussing the Centra ICO and its use of celebrity endorsements. For this article, the reporters reached out to Defendant Sharma to discuss his and Defendant Trapani’s perjury indictments on October 5, 2017 stemming from Defendant Trapani’s testimony that Defendant Sharma had only one alcoholic beverage the night he was arrested for driving while under the influence. In response to questions on this topic, Defendant Sharma stated, “I’m obviously not comfortable with that situation,” and added “[b]ut it’s not that I did something so intensely crazy that investors need to worry.” (emphasis added). Thus, Defendant Sharma clearly viewed persons who purchased Centra Tokens in the Centra ICO as “investors.”
Oops! These guys seem to have had no background in cryptocurrency, which hurt them. If they had raised money from “donors” by selling tokens with no “rights, uses, purpose, attributes, functionalities or features,” they’d be fine. But they were used to raising money from investors, so they called the people who bought their tokens “investors.” It’s a rookie crypto mistake, and one that might cost them all the money they raised.
Nelson Peltz of Trian Fund Management waged a proxy fight to get himself on the board of Procter & Gamble Co. that ended at P&G’s annual meeting in October, when Peltz lost out to management nominee Ernesto Zedillo by about 6.2 million votes. Or did he? In November, an independent recount of the votes found that Peltz had beaten Zedillo by 42,780 votes, or about 0.0016 percent of the shares outstanding. Or did he? On Friday the final official count of the votes came in, finding that Zedillo actually won by 498,312 votes, or about 0.019 percent of the shares outstanding. It is a little disappointing that Zedillo’s margin in the third count, though less than his margin in the first count, was bigger than Peltz’s margin in the second. I was hoping that not only would the victor alternate with each count, but also that the margin would get narrower and narrower, until eventually we’d find out that the two sides were exactly tied except for a single ballot for a single share written in a special ink that says “Peltz” under fluorescent light and “Zedillo” under natural light. I was hoping that P&G would count the votes again and again forever.
It will not, though: Everyone is exhausted, so P&G will just add Peltz to its board. This makes sense. The election is for all practical purposes a tie; the difference in votes appears to be well within the margin for measurement error. I think in that scenario a tie has to go to the activist: If 49.98 percent of your shareholders think something is going wrong, you might as well do something to appease them.
D.T. Max wrote a profile of Renaissance Technologies founder Jim Simons and his computational-science project, the Flatiron Institute, and this is maybe the thesis of the piece:
Simons smokes constantly, even in enclosed conference rooms. He pointed out that, whatever the potential fine for doing so is, he can pay it.
The question is: Do we live in a society, or do we just have a list of prices and you decide which ones to pay? Do we all try to get along together and share the world, giving due consideration to each other’s needs, or do rich people just get to do whatever they want? Much of the article is devoted to the cool things that the Flatiron Institute is doing, but much of it is devoted to people fretting that there might be a downside to rich individuals determining the direction of basic science and using their money to crowd out traditional universities. Meanwhile Simons sits back and smokes and tosses pennies into the no-smoking jar.
There is also some useful information on Simons’s investing strategy:
He told me that, although he has little to do with Renaissance’s day-to-day activities, he occasionally offers ideas. He said, “I gave them one three months ago”—a suggestion for simplifying the historical data behind one of the firm’s trading algorithms. Beyond saying that it didn’t work, he wouldn’t discuss the details—Renaissance’s methods are proprietary and secret—but he did share with me the key to his investing success: he “never overrode the model.” Once he settled on what should happen, he held tight until it did.
It’s like my thesis about Bridgewater Associates: The computer does the investing, and the whole management problem of the hedge fund is about preventing the humans from interfering with the computer.
People are worried that people aren’t worried enough.
“Low volatility will extract a price from investors,” it says here, and it looks like this worry will roll right into 2018.
People are worried about unicorns.
Science fiction writer Ted Chiang diagnoses Silicon Valley’s worries about a malevolent all-powerful artificial intelligence as being really disguised worries about capitalism:
I used to find it odd that these hypothetical AIs were supposed to be smart enough to solve problems that no human could, yet they were incapable of doing something most every adult has done: taking a step back and asking whether their current course of action is really a good idea. Then I realized that we are already surrounded by machines that demonstrate a complete lack of insight, we just call them corporations. Corporations don’t operate autonomously, of course, and the humans in charge of them are presumably capable of insight, but capitalism doesn’t reward them for using it. On the contrary, capitalism actively erodes this capacity in people by demanding that they replace their own judgment of what “good” means with “whatever the market decides.”
Money Stuff was off unexpectedly yesterday because I was sick. The upside is that I can now say that I have literally had fever dreams about bitcoin, though I cannot really recommend that to anyone.
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