The launch of an exchange-traded fund (ETF) based on bitcoin futures in October was epic. Less than a month after it opened, ProShares Bitcoin Strategy ETF (BITO) had $1.26 billion in assets – one of the biggest ETF debuts ever. A second bitcoin futures fund, Valkyrie Bitcoin Strategy ETF (BTF), opened two days after the ProShares fund.
The bitcoin futures ETFs are actively managed and use similar strategies. The managers buy one-month forward futures contracts – the nearest-dated contract – tied to bitcoin prices. Every month, they close or sell those contracts before they expire and buy new contracts dated for the next month.
You can't actually invest in bitcoin's spot price –the price at which an asset can be bought or sold for immediate delivery – says Simeon Hyman, head of investment strategy at ProShares. "So the futures market is a good place to get bitcoin exposure," he says. Because of the way futures contracts are sold, a certain amount of cash per contract needs to be held in collateral. That's why these ETFs are heavy in Treasuries and cash.
Both ProShares and Valkyrie examined how their respective futures-based strategies would have performed in the past, relative to the spot price of bitcoin, and found a high correlation – a so-called beta of 0.87 to 0.99 – between the two. For context, S&P 500 index funds typically have a beta of 1.0 with the stock benchmark.
But futures investing comes with some unique risks. Because of how these securities are priced, shifts in supply and demand for the underlying asset – in this case, bitcoin – can impact contract prices and the fund's returns.
ETFs also have limits on the amount of any given contract they can own, says Steven McClurg, Valkyrie Funds' chief investment officer. Funds with sizable assets may be forced to purchase longer-dated futures contracts, and that can increase volatility. In early November, for instance, ProShares' BITO held November and December contracts.
Even so, the ETFs offer an easier way to gain bitcoin exposure than buying the actual cryptocurrency. You don't have to open a digital currency exchange account or remember any passwords. But if you plan to invest, devote only a small portion of your portfolio to this kind of futures ETF.
There are other ways to gain exposure to bitcoin and blockchain, the technology behind the digital asset. Invesco Alerian Galaxy Crypto Economy ETF (SATO) focuses on companies that enable the crypto economy, such as Canaan (CAN), a Chinese maker of servers and microprocessors used to create bitcoin. Grayscale Bitcoin Trust (GBTC) has yet another approach: Every share in the trust is backed by bitcoin.
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