The first Bitcoin ETF explained: What you need to know
Edited by Jekaterina Drozdovica
17:48, 22 October 2021
The highly-anticipated bitcoin futures exchange-traded fund (ETF) started trading in New York on Tuesday 19 October. Its arrival heralds a crucial moment for the cryptocurrency market. The new ProShares Bitcoin Strategy ETF gives traders and investors a way to get an exposure to bitcoin without having to buy the asset itself.
What does this mean for investors? Well, for starters, it helps to alleviate the fears that many crypto newcomers have, including concerns about navigating exchanges and using wallets and private keys.
Instead, the ETF allows to invest in bitcoin without dealing with any of the unfamiliar aspects of the cryptocurrency ownership experience. By letting indirectly invest in bitcoin without actually holding the digital asset itself, Bitcoin ETFs eliminate many of the entry barriers surrounding traditional cryptocurrency trading.
The new bitcoin-linked exchange-traded fund, which gains exposure to bitcoin via future contracts, became the second-highest traded fund on its debut. According to data compiled by Bloomberg, 24 million shares of the Bitcoin ETF changed hands during its first day of trading.
When the ETF launched on the NYSE (under the ticker BITO) it started with $20 million of seed capital. Meanwhile, the price of the cryptocurrency rose as much as 3.8% to a record high of around $66,000 following the Bitcoin ETF launch. Why has the BTC ETF’s debut caused such a price increase? Let us first examine what a bitcoin ETF is and how it works.
What is a bitcoin ETF?
A bitcoin ETF has been long-awaited by the cryptocurrency community, some of whom believe that approval by regulators could bolster the broader cryptocurrency market and open it up to a new swathe of traders and investors.
Since the first domestically offered ETF was launched in the 1990s, ETFs have become increasingly popular with both retail and institutional investors.
The new ProShares fund is futures-based, which means that the price is based on the expected price of bitcoin on certain exchanges at a future date (specifically, the expiration date of the bitcoin futures contract). The fund tracks bitcoin futures contracts traded on the regulated Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME) and bets on their future price.
The Bitcoin ETF price is naturally tied to the price of the cryptocurrency, and in accordance with the Investment Company Act of 1940, all new ETFs must register with the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).
The SEC has not considered cryptocurrencies to be securities in the past. In fact, it has notably rejected all past applications for a bitcoin-based exchange-traded fund, making the launch of the new ProShares ETF all the more momentous. It is the first of its kind in the US and this development suggests regulatory views on the matter may be evolving, albeit at a steady pace.
However, the idea of a bitcoin ETF is not new. The Winklevoss Bitcoin Trust, led by Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, twice petitioned the SEC for approval to list the first-ever bitcoin ETF in the US.
Neither applications (the first made in 2013 and the second in 2017) were approved by the SEC. Similarly, CBOE Global Markets filed a request earlier this year with the SEC in an attempt to launch a bitcoin ETF but did not receive approval either. Ark Investments’s (ARKA) futures-based ETF filing was submitted this month and is awaiting a decision.
At the same time, the wider use of ETFs may also come with a growing potential for transmission and amplification of risks in the financial system.
For example, hedge funds can use ETFs to take directional bets on specific market segments or asset classes. This act of hedging risk while aiming to generate profits from a volatile asset class has been a contributing factor to the regulatory hurdles that have been thrown up in response to attempts to launch a first-ever bitcoin-linked fund in the US.
How does the bitcoin ETF work?
An ETF is essentially a basket of securities tied to the price of assets, like stocks, bonds, or commodities, that can be bought or sold on stock exchanges. They often passively follow an index or other benchmark, but they may be actively managed. ETFs allow investors to diversify their investments without actually owning the assets themselves since anyone with a brokerage account can trade them.
Compared to buying assets directly, ETFs provide a certain level of protection to investors as they must be either authorised funds, or recognised schemes that are subject to regulatory requirements.
The wide appeal of ETFs is that they offer retail investors diversification, protection and liquidity. It is similar to buying a share in a company in that it allows investors to avoid the exposure that comes from buying a single asset. Instead, they get a share of a diversified portfolio. If the value of the portfolio rises, so does the value of the unit and vice versa.
What is different about the new ProShares ETF is that it focuses on bitcoin futures as opposed to holding spot bitcoin. With a spot ETF, its value will closely track the spot price of the underlying asset.
The bitcoin futures ETF, on the other hand, tracks contracts that speculate on the future price of the digital asset, rather than the current spot price of the cryptocurrency itself. They do not involve ownership of actual bitcoin or trading on spot prices. Instead, the CME calculates a Bitcoin Reference Rate (BRR) during a one-hour window based on trade flow from major spot exchanges.
Bitcoin ETF analysis
First, it’s important to understand that investing in a futures-based bitcoin ETF is not a direct investment in bitcoin. Since the fund tracks CME bitcoin futures, which are contracts speculating on the future price of the cryptocurrency, rather than the bitcoin itself, investors should note that the price of the ETF may deviate from the price of the cryptocurrency.
The introduction of a new bitcoin-linked ETF does seem to have “added more legitimacy to bitcoin”, according to Susannah Streeter, senior investment and markets analyst at Hargreaves Lansdown. Yet, “trading in futures contracts and speculating where the price will go next may be even more expensive than trading right now in cryptocurrency on an exchange,” she added.
Indeed, a futures-based bitcoin ETF could potentially be more expensive than investing in bitcoin directly since there are a number of additional costs attached to the futures contracts that can impact the price investors end up paying.The price of a futures contract will be equal to the spot price (SP) plus the net cost incurred in carrying the asset till the maturity date of the futures contract.
Bitcoin ETF forecast
The annual expense ratio of the ProShares ETF is 0.95 percent, which is higher compared to most regular ETFs. This is largely due to the fact that it is a futures ETF.
BITO has climbed to a record high of $43.85, on 20 October, 7% higher than its opening price of $40.99. Yet it has since pulled back and is currently trading at $41.27.
BITO is arguably “the most successful ETF launch in history if we are measuring by volume and assets,” Dave Nadig, chief investment officer and director of research at ETF Trends told Capital.com.
How to invest in a Bitcoin ETF?
The first-ever Bitcoin ETF allows investors to speculate on bitcoin without actually owning the assets. Investors don’t need to buy cryptocurrency directly or set up an account with a crypto exchange, instead they can simply buy and sell the fund like any other stock trading on the exchange.
What is the difference between bitcoin and Bitcoin ETF?
Investing in a futures-based bitcoin ETF is not a direct investment in bitcoin. The fund tracks CME bitcoin futures, which are contracts speculating on the future price of the cryptocurrency, rather than bitcoin itself.
What are the main advantages of Bitcoin ETFs?
Compared to buying assets directly, ETFs provide certain advantages. They are popular because they combine the ease of investing in an ETF with the exposure to cryptocurrency. The wider appeal is that they offer retail investors diversification and liquidity.
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