Sunday, December 10, 2017

EES: The TRUTH about the new Bitcoin Futures CME contract

Elite E Services 12/10/2017 - As a Forex CTA for 12 years, we were happy to learn the CME will offer a Bitcoin futures contract, and called the CME to learn more.  Unlike most of these Bitcoin outfits, the CME has an office, a phone, which is answered, and we were routed to the correct person.  We don't want to name names as we still wait a response from legal about the publication of information (which will likely not happen before the contract goes live) so we will speak only generally about this contract and comment on what some of the market is saying:

 The problem, of course, boils down to Bitcoin’s volatility, something we flagged after the CME announced circuit breakers early last month.
Having taken a gamble on bitcoin futures, which are set to begin trading by the end of the year, the CME is now seeking to avoid the consequences of what has emerged as both the cryptocurrency's best and worst selling point: its unprecedented volatility…While the CME already uses daily vol limits on most other markets, including crude, gold and market futures, to temporarily halt trading when price swings get out of control, the CME has never before dealt with something like bitcoin
In June, Bloomberg showed how Bitcoin’s 30-day volatility had risen to 100%, which was comparable (at the time) with one of the most volatile financial instruments they (and we) could probably think of - a three-times levered ETF in junior gold miners.

The price of Bitcoin (notably, BTC/USD) has been exploding all week basically with the market expecting that with regulated futures contracts, it will bring institutional money into the Crypto market.  While that may be true, this futures contract is not exactly a conduit, as it is 'cash settled' which means effectively 'not settled' or 'self-cleared'.  CME will match buyers and sellers and not have any connection to any Bitcoin exchange or other clearing facility.  At the end of the day, each contract will have a profit or loss, against each other.  Crypto Market Makers could at their own risk, provide liquidity on-exchange and lay off risk independently, through the exchanges.  But practically, why would they?  Just to soak up 'newbie' liquidity from the moms and pops now able to trade the futures contract through their IRA?  Something certainly doesn't add up here, and given the chaos and volatility we saw all week, we are expecting at best, a total market meltdown; at worst, they may cease trading the contract.  There is certainly a lot of money waiting in the pipeline for the moment the contract goes live.  And it's not the only one, CBOE has a contract too, which is the first one which will go live.

Traders wait in anticipation this week to see how the market will react to the first regulated Crypto contracts.

To get in on the action checkout some Bitcoin resources we've added to our website by clicking here.  If you want to learn more about Bitcoin from the perspective of digital currency, which we've been doing for 15 years, checkout Splitting Bits - Understanding Bitcoin and the Blockchain.


Friday, December 8, 2017

Bitcoin Has A "Whale" Problem: 1,000 Investors Control Nearly Half The Market

If Jay Gould were alive today, he would've traded bitcoin.
Perhaps the most blatant hypocrisy perpetrated by bitcoin evangelists is their insistence that bitcoin and other digital currencies represent a return to a truly democratic financial system beyond the control of banks and other special interests, where players small and large can earn enormous profits simply by HODLing.
Of course, this idealistic take couldn’t be further from the truth. As Bloomberg points out, the markets for bitcoin and most of its cryptocurrency clones more closely resemble the US equity market of the Gilded Age, where a handful of powerful traders and brokers colluded to move prices in their favor. And because securities laws at the time were virtually nonexistent, the big players minted suckers with impunity.
According to Bloomberg, about 1,000 so-called “whales” control 40% of the bitcoin in circulation, giving them unrivaled leverage over the broader market. And because there are no laws explicitly banning collusion in digital currency markets, only the most blatant pump-and-dump operations risk being prosecuted as fraud.
And with the price skyrocketing like it has in recent days, the incentive for these traders to begin taking profits has never been more pressing.
About 40 percent of bitcoin is held by perhaps 1,000 users; at current prices, each may want to sell about half of his or her holdings, says Aaron Brown, former managing director and head of financial markets research at AQR Capital Management. (Brown is a contributor to the Bloomberg Prophets online column.) What’s more, the whales can coordinate their moves or preview them to a select few. Many of the large owners have known one another for years and stuck by bitcoin through the early days when it was derided, and they can potentially band together to tank or prop up the market.

“I think there are a few hundred guys,” says Kyle Samani, managing partner at Multicoin Capital. “They all probably can call each other, and they probably have.” One reason to think so: At least some kinds of information sharing are legal, says Gary Ross, a securities lawyer at Ross & Shulga. Because bitcoin is a digital currency and not a security, he says, there’s no prohibition against a trade in which a group agrees to buy enough to push the price up and then cashes out in minutes.
As Bloomberg explained, the manipulation in bitcoin is extreme because many of the big players know each other from having been involved in the digital currency space since its infancy. Add to this the fact that the risks are incredibly asymmetrical – there’s tremendous upside in terms of profits if they can successfully pull it off. And the chances of them drawing the scrutiny of law enforcement are relatively low.
“As in any asset class, large individual holders and large institutional holders can and do collude to manipulate price,” Ari Paul, co-founder of BlockTower Capital and a former portfolio manager of the University of Chicago endowment, wrote in an electronic message. “In cryptocurrency, such manipulation is extreme because of the youth of these markets and the speculative nature of the assets.”

The recent rise in its price is difficult to explain because bitcoin has no intrinsic value. Launched in 2009 with a white paper written under a pseudonym, it’s a form of digital payment maintained by an independent network of computers on the internet‚ using cryptography to verify transactions. Its most fervent believers say it could displace banks and even traditional money, but it’s only worth what someone will trade for it, making it prey to big shifts in sentiment.
Case in point: Some of these so-called whales admitted in an interview with Bloomberg that they regularly incorporate what would in the equity market be considered material nonpublic information into their trading strategies.
Like most hedge fund managers specializing in cryptocurrencies, Samani constantly tracks trading activity of addresses known to belong to the biggest investors in the coins he holds. (Although bitcoin transactions are designed to be anonymous, each one is associated with a coded address that can be seen by anyone.) When he sees activity, Samani immediately calls the likely sellers and can often get information on motivations behind their sales and their trading plans, he says. Some funds end up buying one another’s holdings directly, without going into the open market, to avoid affecting the currency’s price. “Investors are generally more forthcoming with other investors,” Samani says. “We all kind of know who one another are, and we all help each other out and share notes. We all just want to make money.” Ross says gathering intelligence is legal.
And investors who buy into smaller tokens are at an even greater disadvantage.
Ordinary investors are at an even greater disadvantage in smaller digital currencies and tokens. Among the coins people invest in, bitcoin has the least concentrated ownership, says Spencer Bogart, managing director and head of research at Blockchain Capital. The top 100 bitcoin addresses control 17.3 percent of all the issued currency, according to Alex Sunnarborg, co-founder of crypto hedge fund Tetras Capital. With ether, a rival to bitcoin, the top 100 addresses control 40 percent of the supply, and with coins such as Gnosis, Qtum, and Storj, top holders control more than 90 percent. Many large owners are part of the teams running these projects.
Unsurprisingly, Bloomberg managed to find someone to defend the status quo: Whales won’t dump their holdings, this person argued, because they “have faith in the long-term potential of the coins.” This strikes us as a naïve assumption.
Some argue this is no different than what happens in more established markets. “A good comparison is to early stage equity,” BlockTower’s Paul wrote. “Similar to those equity deals, often the founders and a handful of investors will own the majority of the asset.” Other investors say the whales won’t dump their holdings, because they have faith in the long-term potential of the coins. “I believe that it’s common sense that these whales that own so much bitcoin and bitcoin cash, they don’t want to destroy either one,” says Sebastian Kinsman, who lives in Prague and trades coins. But as prices go through the roof, that calculation might change.
While the concentrated holdings of the modern bitcoin market should give potential investors pause, in some ways, it's not all that different from the modern equity market. As we pointed out back in September, the Bank of Japan owns a staggering 75% of the domestic ETF market. Increasingly, equity ownership in the US and around the world is becoming increasingly concentrated in the hands of central banks, sovereign wealth funds and the largest asset managers like BlackRock, Fidelity and Vanguard.
While the whales can exercise unrivaled influence over the price of bitcoin, they aren't the only players in the bitcoin market with a natural inclination toward self-dealing. As Bill Blaine pointed out, nearly every bank knows bitcoin's extraordinary gains are a crowd delusion fuelled by the extraordinary promise of free wealth.
Yet, many will be willing to trade and settle them for their clients – largely retail. So, while the bitcoin bubble has (for now) blessed hundreds of thousands of mom and pop investors with spectacular returns, these gains will only continue as long as the cartel allows them too.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Wells Fargo Bankers, Chasing Bonuses, Overcharged Hundreds of Clients

The whispers among employees had been around for years. They finally heard some facts during a conference call in June led by managers in Wells Fargo WFC +3.17% & Co.’s foreign-exchange operation: Some of its business customers had been cheated, according to two employees who were on the call.
An internal review showed that out of roughly 300 fee agreements based on anything from informal handshakes to emails to signed documents, only about 35 companies were charged the actual price they had been offered for currency trades handled by Wells Fargo, the employees say.
The phone call was part of a continuing cleanup that has led Wells Fargo to fire four foreign-exchange bankers and federal prosecutors to open their own investigation of the operation, people familiar with the matter have said.
“Wells Fargo remains committed to our foreign exchange business,” the bank said in a statement Monday. “If we find a problem, we fix it.” The bank said its foreign-exchange business is “under new management.”
The business is tiny compared with foreign-exchange operations at J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. and Citigroup Inc. but could become another huge headache for the San Francisco bank, still grappling with fallout from the sales-practices scandal in its retail operations. The scandal led to last year’s abrupt retirement of Wells Fargo’s chief executive, a $185 million regulatory settlement and numerous federal and state investigations, which are continuing.
Wells Fargo retail employees had to hit lofty goals to keep their jobs or get bonuses, which led some employees to open potentially 3.5 million accounts with fictitious or unauthorized customer information from 2009 to 2015.
Foreign-exchange employees got bonuses based solely on how much revenue they brought in, say more than a dozen current or former Wells Fargo employees. No other big bank in the U.S. calculated bonuses of currency traders in such a defined and individual way. Wells Fargo said Monday that it began making changes to those compensation plans earlier this year.
The bank also charged some of the highest trading fees around, according to current and former employees. For more than a decade, customers were sometimes charged anywhere from 1% to 4% on basic transactions such as converting euros to dollars and complicated trades like hedging.
Those percentages can be at least two to eight times higher than the middle-market industry average of 0.15% to 0.5%, depending on the trade, customer and volume, according to foreign-exchange bankers throughout the industry.
Wells Fargo disputes the descriptions of its foreign-exchange fees by current and former employees. The bank said Monday its fees in 2016 had a weighted average of 0.09 percentage point across all transaction sizes. Clients served by its middle-market banking team were charged a weighted average of 0.18 percentage point, according to Wells Fargo.
Some foreign-exchange bankers at Wells Fargo relied on the fact that customers often didn’t bother to double-check how much they were charged, fee levels weren’t straightforward, and complaints could be batted away, the current and former employees say.
‘Time fluctuation’
One former Wells Fargo manager says employees would tell customers who expressed surprise at the size of a trading fee that market prices were different at the moment when the transaction was executed and blame “time fluctuation” for any difference.
The bank’s foreign-exchange customers have included telecommunications firm CenturyLinkInc., vehicle-parts supplier Federal-Mogul Holdings Corp. and nonprofit groups such as the National Bone Marrow Donor Program.
Regulators have been investigating the foreign-exchange business at Wells Fargo, including a big trade involving Restaurant Brands International Inc., the owner of Burger King, Tim Hortons and Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, according to people familiar with the matter.
A Burger King in Tokyo. The fast-food chain’s owner got a refund from Wells Fargo after disputing a trade handled by the bank.
A Burger King in Tokyo. The fast-food chain’s owner got a refund from Wells Fargo after disputing a trade handled by the bank. PHOTO: KIM KYUNG-HOON/REUTERS
The trade resulted in a loss to Restaurant Brands, people familiar with the matter have said, which led to a dispute between the Oakville, Ontario, company and the bank. The dispute centered on how bank employees handled the trade, rather than its pricing. Wells Fargo refunded about $900,000 to Restaurant Brands, people familiar with the refund say.
The foreign-exchange business’s problems run far deeper than what is known inside Wells Fargo as “the Burger King trade” or what has been previously reported. The extent of the trouble seems to have become apparent to top Wells Fargo executives earlier this year.
Small FryForeign-exchange spot contracts as apercent of a bank's total derivativesportfolioTHE WALL STREET JOURNALSource: Office of the Comptroller of the Currency
Bank ofAmericaCitigroupJ.P. MorganWells Fargo0%102030
The business was moved in early 2017 from Wells Fargo’s international division into its investment-banking and capital-markets operation. Since then, executives have changed internal systems, added more stringent rules around pricing and required more frequent compliance checks, current and former employees say.
Issues with the Burger King trade were found following those checks and customer complaints, people familiar with the matter say. The continuing internal review of Wells Fargo’s foreign-exchange operation is separate from the review sparked by the sales scandal, some of the people said.
A compliance training session in early November detailed what Wells Fargo called “approved margins” for different volumes of foreign-exchange transactions, according to an internal document reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. Employees say fee levels remain higher than industry norms, and some compensation practices aren’t due to change until next year.

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Foreign-exchange trading has been a problem area for many banks. In 2015, several large U.S. and European banks agreed to multibillion-dollar settlements with U.S. regulators and pleaded guilty to criminal charges filed by U.S. authorities over alleged collusion among currency traders.
Bank of New York Mellon Corp. agreed in 2015 to pay $714 million to resolve allegations it defrauded pension funds and other clients by overcharging them on currency transactions.State Street Corp. agreed in 2016 to pay $530 million to settle similar allegations.
Both banks admitted giving some clients far worse pricing on currency transactions than the banks implied the clients would get.
The Journal reported in October that the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of California is investigating the Restaurant Brands currency trade and has subpoenaed information from Wells Fargo.
Potential issues related to that trade also are being examined by the Federal Reserve, the Journal reported. Examiners from the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency are auditing Wells Fargo’s foreign-exchange business, according to employees at the bank. A Wells Fargo executive says the audit is “normal course of business.”

Payment Plans

Some current and former Wells Fargo employees say its charges on foreign-exchange trades encouraged employees to cheat customers.

Source: People familiar with the bank
Current and former bank employees say its pricing practices were rooted in a culture and compensation system that looked to maximize revenue. Bonuses were defined as 10% of revenues exceeding revenue targets.
If a banker’s revenue target was $5 million and the person brought in $6 million, he or she would earn a $100,000 bonus, or 10% of the additional $1 million in revenue. Bankers typically received such bonuses twice a year in cash, rather than stock, as part of a signed contract, they added.
It’s rare among foreign-exchange groups in other banks to have so-called defined-bonus plans focused on individual earnings, according to people in the industry.
After Wells Fargo moved the foreign-exchange business into its investment bank earlier this year, managers began telling employees that bonuses would become “discretionary” by the end of 2017. Under this more typical arrangement, management would decide employee bonuses, and bankers wouldn’t know exactly how much they would receive. It would be based on a variety of factors, not just revenue.
Wells Fargo has 18 foreign-exchange sales and trading offices, including in New York, San Francisco, Charlotte, N.C., London and Hong Kong. A few hundred people work in the group world-wide.
Current and former employees say Wells Fargo’s foreign-exchange customers are largely midsize businesses that don’t tend to trade in large volumes. As a result, those clients don’t have the same insight into the market as larger firms that are more-active traders.
Some Wells Fargo clients have complained to the bank. In November 2016, Ecolab Inc., a water, hygiene and energy company based in St. Paul, Minn., bought and sold currency in a so-called swap arranged by the bank, according to people familiar with the deal. These people say Wells Fargo collected 1% on one part of the $100 million deal.
Ecolab contested the fee charged by Wells Fargo on a transaction arranged by the bank.
Ecolab contested the fee charged by Wells Fargo on a transaction arranged by the bank. PHOTO:ARIANA LINDQUIST/BLOOMBERG NEWS
After Ecolab compared the full trade, including fees, to overall market prices, the company contested the bank’s fee. Wells Fargo refunded hundreds of thousands of dollars to Ecolab in December 2016, according to current and former employees.
A spokeswoman for Ecolab confirmed the details of the trade and said it was the only fee issue Ecolab had with Wells Fargo.
Fee issues arose for some Wells Fargo clients even when they had a pricing agreement. The bank agreed within the past 18 months to a specified rate with data-management firm Veritas Technologies LLC, according to bank employees. After making one trade on behalf of Veritas, Wells Fargo bankers told Veritas that the bank’s fee was 0.05 percentage point higher than the agreed rate, the employees say.
Unusually high fees
The result: The bank made an extra $50,000 on a $100 million trade, the employees say. Wells Fargo later made a refund to Veritas, according to people familiar with the matter. A Veritas spokeswoman declined to comment.
Wells Fargo’s foreign-exchange business also charged unusually high fees for trades with different currency conversions, known as “Bswift” transactions, current and former employees say.
“And if anybody did complain, it was an easy tap dance,” one former employee says. He says employees would say the pricing had been done automatically by the bank’s computer system so “there’s no accountability for the spread.”
Wells Fargo sent an internal email Nov. 2 detailing new guidelines for Bswift transactions, according to a copy of the email reviewed by the Journal. The guidelines include specific handling and pricing procedures for those trades.
The operation also charged high fees to other parts of Wells Fargo. Wells Fargo Rail, which leases locomotives and railcars, and the bank’s corporate-trust division are often charged 1% to 1.5% on currency transactions, according to current and former employees.
The bank’s foreign-exchange management often celebrated big trades and the money they made for the bank, the current and former employees say. Sara Wardell-Smith, who led the foreign-exchange group, emailed the group to hail big trades, naming clients and spelling out revenue generated. The employees say managers used to encourage employees to ring a brass bell in the San Francisco office when the bank made a lot of money on a trade.
In mid-October, the bank announced that Ms. Wardell-Smith would lead its financial institutions group in the Americas region, according to a memo reviewed by the Journal and confirmed by a bank spokeswoman.
Current employees say the move was viewed within Wells Fargo as a demotion, coming just months after Ms. Wardell-Smith had been promoted to co-lead the bank’s division focusing on trading of rates, currencies and commodities. She didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The other co-leader, Ben Bonner, now leads that group on his own and is overseeing foreign-exchange trading, a bank spokeswoman confirms.
Mr. Bonner has been working with other executives to fix the problems in the currency business, according to several current employees.
Last month, the bank sent a memo to foreign-exchange employees that instructs them not to create informal or oral pricing agreements. The memo, reviewed by the Journal, also said employees are “responsible for ensuring customers are not misled regarding” pricing.
Current and former employees say some Wells Fargo employees expressed concerns about pricing practices to top executives before the bank’s internal cleanup efforts began earlier this year. Some employees say they were reluctant to press for sweeping changes, citing what they saw happen to one manager in the foreign-exchange operation about a decade ago.
During a meeting of foreign-exchange managers in the mid-2000s, Cathy Witt said it wasn’t right to celebrate high fees by ringing a bell, people familiar with the situation say. Ms. Witt, an employee in the bank’s Chicago foreign-exchange group, warned that Wells Fargo could become known as a “bucket shop,” a derisive term for a disreputable finance firm, some of the people say.
A few weeks later, Ms. Witt was summoned to a meeting in St. Louis, told that her comments had been offensive and demoted on the spot, according to people familiar with the matter. She also was told to apologize to other managers for her unprofessional behavior, the people say. She later left the bank.