CME Bitcoin futures trade at a discount, but is that a good or a bad thing?


CME Group’s Bitcoin (BTC) futures have been trading below Bitcoin’s spot price on regular exchanges since Nov. 9, a situation that is technically referred to as backwardation. While it does point to a bearish market structure, there are multiple factors that can cause momentary distortions.

Typically, these CME fixed-month contracts trade at a slight premium, indicating that sellers are requesting more money to withhold settlement for longer. As a result, futures should trade at a 0.5%-to-2% premium in healthy markets, a situation known as contango.

However, a prominent futures contract seller will cause a momentary distortion in the futures premium. Unlike perpetual contracts, these fixed-calendar futures do not have a funding rate, so their price may vastly differ from spot exchanges.

Aggressive sellers caused a 5% discount on BTC futures

Whenever there’s aggressive activity from shorts (sellers), the two-month futures contract will trade at a 2% or higher discount.

CME Bitcoin 1-month futures premium vs. BTC index. Source: TradingView

Notice how one-month CME futures had been trading near the fair value, either presenting a 0.5% discount or 0.5% premium versus spot exchanges. However, during the Nov. 9 Bitcoin price crash, aggressive futures contracts sellers caused the CME futures to trade 5% below the regular market price.

The present 1.5% discount remains atypical, but it can be explained by the contagion risks caused by the FTX and Alameda Research bankruptcy. The organizations were together supposedly one of the largest market makers in cryptocurrencies, so their downfall was bound to send shockwaves throughout all crypto-related markets.

The insolvency has severely impacted prominent over-the-counter desks, investment funds and lending services, including Genesis, BlockFi and Galois Capital. As a result, traders should expect less arbitrage activity between CME futures and the remaining spot market exchanges.

The lack of market makers exacerbated the negative impact

As market makers scramble to reduce their exposure and assess counterparty risks, the eventual excessive demand for longs and shorts at CME will naturally cause distortions in the futures premium indicator.

The backwardation in contracts is the primary indicator of a dysfunctional and bearish derivatives market. Such a movement can occur during liquidation orders or when large players decide to short the market using derivatives. This is especially true when open interest increases because new positions are being created under these unusual circumstances.

On the other hand, an excessive discount will create an arbitrage opportunity because one can buy the futures contract while simultaneously selling the same amount on spot (or margin) markets. This is a neutral market strategy, commonly known as “reverse cash and carry.”

Institutional investors’ interest in CME futures remains steady

Curiously, the open interest in CME Bitcoin futures reached its highest level in four months on Nov. 10. This data measures the aggregate size of buyers and sellers using CME’s derivatives contracts.

CME Bitcoin futures open interest, USD. Source: Coinglass

Notice that the $5.45 billion record high happened on Oct. 26, 2021, but Bitcoin’s price was near $60,000 then. Consequently, the $1.67 billion CME futures open interest on Nov. 10, 2022, remains relevant in the number of contracts.

Related: US crypto exchanges lead Bitcoin exodus: Over $1.5B in BTC withdrawn in one week

Traders often use open interest as an indicator to confirm trends or, at least, institutional investors’ appetite. For instance, a rising number of outstanding futures contracts is usually interpreted as new money coming into the market, irrespective of the bias.

Although this data can’t be deemed bullish on a standalone basis, it does signal that professional investors’ interest in Bitcoin is not going away.

As further proof, notice that the open interest chart above shows that savvy investors did not reduce their positions using Bitcoin derivatives, regardless of what critics have said about cryptocurrencies.

Considering the uncertainty surrounding cryptocurrency markets, traders shouldn’t assume that a 1.5% discount on CME futures denotes long-term bearishness.

There’s undoubtedly a demand for shorts, but the lack of appetite from market makers is the primary factor leading to the current distortion.