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Bitcoin futures soar as the virtual currency begins trading on a major exchange

You can buy and sell bitcoins through marketplaces called “bitcoin exchanges.” (Dec. 11, 2017) (Sign up for our free video newsletter here http://bit.ly/2n6VKPR)

Wall Street got its first taste of bitcoin Monday, with the price of the first-ever futures contract for the digital currency jumping 20%.

It's a step forward for the bitcoin, which has soared this year despite concerns that the surge of investor interest has transformed it from a new-age currency into just the latest speculative bubble.

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One prominent securities regulator said people were taking out second mortgages on their homes to buy bitcoin.

The January contract for bitcoin futures closed at $18,545 on the Cboe Futures Exchange. Trading began Sunday and the price rose as high as $18,850, according to data from Cboe.

The bitcoin futures’ first day of trading was not entirely smooth. Because of a surge of interest, Cboe's website slowed or crashed several times. The exchange halted trading twice the first day to stem volatility. The exchange operator has rules in place to stop trading after price swings of 10%.

Cboe said at least 20 trading firms “actively participated” in the first day of trading, without giving specifics. Volume of the bitcoin futures was relatively low, trading fewer than 4,000 contracts compared with the tens of thousands that typically trade for more popular commodities such as oil, gold or wheat, or the hundreds of thousands of contracts for popular stock-based futures such as the S&P 500.

The Cboe futures don't involve actual bitcoins; rather, they enable investors to make bets on the future direction of the bitcoin. Monday's futures price indicates investors expect bitcoin to keep rising in the coming weeks, although at a slower pace than seen recently. The futures price was about 8% higher than the price of $17,100 quoted for bitcoin on the large private exchange CoinBase on Monday afternoon.

With the surge of interest have come concerns about the bitcoin market being in a bubble. In an interview on business network CNBC, North American Securities Administrators Assn. President Joseph Borg said he observed some people taking out mortgages on their homes to buy bitcoin.

Although bitcoin has a vocal group of true believers, it also attracts its fair share of detractors. JPMorgan Chase Chief Executive Jamie Dimon has called bitcoin “a fraud.” Thomas Peterffy, chairman of the broker-dealer Interactive Brokers Group, expressed deep concerns about the trading of bitcoin futures last month, saying “there is no fundamental basis for valuation of bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, and they may assume any price from one day to the next.”

But there is some hopes that bringing bitcoin to public exchanges such as the Cboe or the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, which will start trading its own bitcoin futures Dec. 18, will bring some regulation or legitimacy to the world of cryptocurrencies.

“The next immediate things we will see with the futures is more predictable price movement and less volatility,” said Emin Gun Sirer, a professor at Cornell University who studies digital currencies.

There have been other attempts to bring bitcoin investing into the mainstream. Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss, twin brothers who own large amounts of bitcoin, tried to create an exchange-traded fund based on the currency, but federal regulators denied their application. The Winklevoss twins run Gemini, however, the exchange that Cboe is using to price its bitcoin futures.

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