Bitcoin ETF Faces Moving Finish Line as Cboe Aims to Be First

(Bloomberg) -- Cboe Global Markets Inc. wants to be the first to list a Bitcoin exchange-traded fund, though there’s still a lot of work needed to win approval from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

“As we chip away at their issues to make them less concerned, at some point they’ll be comfortable with an ETF,” Chris Concannon, the Chicago-based exchange operator’s president and chief operating officer, said in an interview.

The SEC has been wary of bringing crypto to the masses with an ETF despite speculation one would be endorsed as early as this month. It postponed a decision last week on a proposal that would allow the fund from VanEck Associates Corp. and SolidX Partners Inc. to list on Cboe. The SEC earlier rejected an ETF proposal by Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss, who run the Gemini Trust Co. cryptocurrency exchange. The regulator is concerned about manipulation in the mostly unregulated digital currency markets.

“The SEC is likely to delay until February of 2019 and the chances of a Bitcoin ETF approval in 2018 have always been low,” Hany Rashwan, chief executive officer of crypto startup Amun Technologies Ltd., said last week.

Bitcoin’s first major step into mainstream finance was in December when Cboe and then CME Group Inc. offered futures contracts. The futures, which are traded in regulated markets, could also serve as the basis for an ETF, rather than the underlying currency to which they are pegged.

Bitcoin ETF Faces Moving Finish Line as Cboe Aims to Be First

“Having the underlying futures come to market first, prior to an ETF, I think you have a healthier, more mature market,” Concannon said. “The problem with a futures-based ETF is, what is the right level of liquidity? It’s never been tested before.”

While trading volumes in the futures have been low compared with contracts for commodities such as gold or oil, waiting until there is more liquidity to introduce an ETF is a chicken-and-egg problem. An ETF would increase trading in the futures, but the SEC is hesitant to approve it without sufficient liquidity in the underlying futures.

Meanwhile, market participants continue to move ahead with expansion proposals. The New York Stock Exchange’s owner is planning to introduce its own crypto futures contract later this year. And the race to bring the first ETF to market intensifies.

“There’s a huge first-mover advantage in the ETF world,” Concannon said. Once the assets “come pouring in, it tends to continue. We’ve seen that in other ETFs.”

Futures trading came as fervor for cryptocurrencies was driving up the price of Bitcoin to a record high in December. They were seen as a signal that Wall Street was embracing digital assets, and an ETF was considered by many as the next logical step.

Trading volumes in the Cboe and CME contracts, however, remained low, and Bitcoin soon sank in a sea of bad publicity.

“I’ve learned that there’s been more articles than volume,” Concannon said. “It’s a little bit shocking to me the attention this market gets versus its size. It’s a fifth of Apple. The entire crypto market is a fifth of Apple.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.