Bitcoin moves toward financial mainstream with futures contracts

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The derivatives exchange CME Group plans to begin offering bitcoin futures contracts by the end of 2017, a move that will put the cryptocurrency on an equal footing with other commodities such as gold and oil.

With futures, financial institutions that may have been spooked by the volatility of bitcoin and other digital assets, which often gain or lose double-digit percentages of their value in a matter of hours, would have a way to hedge their bets.

CME's planned introduction of bitcoin futures "is strong evidence that exchanges, trading firms and investment banks are prepared to trade financial products — including derivatives and [exchange-traded funds] — that are connected to digital currencies," said Rick Levin, chairman of the fintech and regulation team at the law firm Polsinelli.

Although a number of global banks are studying or experimenting with cryptocurrencies and their underlying blockchain technology for cross-border payments and other uses, none have yet begun trading it openly.

But the $185 billion market is getting harder to ignore. Terry Duffy, CEO and chairman of CME Group, said it was "increasing client interest" in cryptocurrency markets that had spurred his company to introduce bitcoin futures.

"As the world's largest regulated [foreign exchange] marketplace, CME Group is the natural home for this new vehicle that will provide investors with transparency, price discovery and risk transfer capabilities," Duffy said in a news release.

For a broad swath of the American public, cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin and Ethereum are now household names. More than two-thirds of Americans, for instance, have heard of bitcoin, and nearly a third have heard of Ethereum, according to LendEDU surveys conducted in September and October.

Some 17% of survey respondents said they plan on investing in bitcoin in the future, while roughly the same number—slightly more than 18%—plan to invest in ether, the token that grants access to the Ethereum network, which powers the smart contracts that have enabled the launch of hundreds of new digital tokens this year. Many others said they were unsure.

CME Group first publicly took note of bitcoin in November 2016 when it debuted a price index for the digital currency. The futures, whose launch is subject to regulatory approval, will be based on the CME reference rate.

Tuesday, the day of CME Group's announcement, marked nine years since the release of the original bitcoin white paper by someone using the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto, in which the author described bitcoin as a "peer-to-peer electronic cash system."

On Wednesday, bitcoin reached another all-time high of more than $6,600, according to CoinMarketCap.

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