How Soon Can We Expect a Bitcoin ETF?

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Now that the Chicago Board of Options Exchange has launched its bitcoin futures exchange — and the world didn’t end — what’s next for the digital currency? A spate of recent regulatory filings to launch an exchange traded fund (ETF) to track bitcoin futures appears to be the answer.

Actually, if such an ETF does get approval, it will follow Monday’s launch of a second regulated bitcoin exchange by CME Group. And it would trail well-behind a Sweden-based exchange traded note (ETN), XBT Provider, that trades on the Nordic Nasdaq. ETNs are unsecured debt securities (essentially bonds) issued by financial institutions that promise to pay investors a return on a benchmark index before the ETN matures. Some also provide current distributions to investors. If the issuer should go bankrupt, investors could lose their entire investment.

XBT Provider tracks the movement of both bitcoin and ethereum digital currencies. The fund avoids market risk by always holding bitcoin equivalent to the value of the issued ETNs.

Two firms have filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in the past few days to create bitcoin ETFs: the VanEck Vectors Bitcoin Strategy ETF, the REX Bitcoin Strategy ETF, and the REX Short Bitcoin Strategy ETF. All three had filed with the SEC earlier this year but withdrew their applications before the agency could reject them.

The SEC and other regulators objected to the earlier applications on the grounds that there was no futures-based index by which to measure the value of the underlying asset. The arrival of the CBOE and the coming launch of the CME exchange may remove that hurdle, but others remain.

Chief among them, at least in the SEC’s mind, is the suitability of bitcoin as an asset. SEC Chair Jay Clayton issued a warning to retail investors earlier this week regarding cryptocurrencies and initial coin offerings (ICOs):

Investors should understand that to date [December 11, 2017] no initial coin offerings have been registered with the SEC.  The SEC also has not to date approved for listing and trading any exchange-traded products (such as ETFs) holding cryptocurrencies or other assets related to cryptocurrencies.  If any person today tells you otherwise, be especially wary. … As with any other type of potential investment, if a promoter guarantees returns, if an opportunity sounds too good to be true, or if you are pressured to act quickly, please exercise extreme caution and be aware of the risk that your investment may be lost.

The launch of futures exchanges for bitcoin is not likely immediately to clear the way for ETF issuances. But they’re coming, perhaps as soon as the first half of next year.

Clayton’s full statement is available here.

Bitcoin traded down about 3.3% on the CBOE in the noon hour Wednesday at $17,430. Volume was very light at just 757 transactions.