How to short bitcoins (if you really must)

April 2, 2013
Obsession
Digital Money
April 2, 2013

The rise of bitcoin, an electronic currency traded on an online exchange, has generated a media frenzy. Once scoffed at, its value has risen by 631% (denominated in dollars) since the start of 2013.

Lots of people think that means we’re in a bitcoin bubble and it will eventually pop. But if you’re one of these bitcoin bears, it’s not easy for you to “short” it—i.e., bet that its value will go down.

The usual way to short a currency is to use a currency pair—something like EUR/USD, the value of a euro denominated in dollars—which trades as a single unit. For example, if the euro was trading at $1.3000, you would “borrow” a currency pair from your broker, which you have to return within a certain period of time, and sell it on the open market, pocketing $1.30. If after an hour EUR/USD is trading at $1.2950, you can buy the currency pair at that price and return it to your broker, making a profit of $0.0050. (If you’re wrong, you lose out.)

Most of the exchanges which allow you to trade bitcoins, however, don’t currently offer anything like currency pairs, nor any other futures or derivatives. Which means you would have to amass a stock of actual bitcoins to bet on them. That gets expensive.

One day, if bitcoin becomes well established, institutional foreign exchange dealers could make markets in bitcoins. (Among the current obstacles: There are only 11 million bitcoins in existence, and there can never be more than 21 million, so it’s not a very liquid market. If a way ever emerges to break bitcoins up into even smaller fractions, that might solve the problem, according to traders we spoke to.) But for those looking to short bitcoins right now, there are two notable ways to do it:

  • Bitfinex: A Hong Kong-based bitcoin exchange based in Hong Kong, Bitfinex allows ordinary bitcoin holders to act like brokers and lend bitcoins to people who want to trade them. The exchange does a lot of this automatically.
  • ICBIT: ICBIT allows traders to make bets using futures—financial contracts in which a buyer agrees to buy a security, in this case a bitcoin, at a future date at a predetermined price. Futures contracts can be bought and sold, so you can make money without buying the actual bitcoins themselves. This platform will also let you trade commodities, such as oil, in bitcoins.

Still, do you really want to short bitcoins? The market is still pretty volatile, and because it’s an unfamiliar mix of currency and equity, it’s likely to stay that way for a while. Remarks Cullen Roche, the founder of Orcam Financial Group, “You’d probably be better off just going to Vegas though. You’ll have more fun, about the same odds, and the drinks in the casino will be free.”

If you’d like to make us aware of any other means of shorting bitcoin, please email sf@qz.com.

Update: Article has been amended to reflect that bitcoins can already be traded in small fractions, indeed to 0.00000001 BTC (eight decimal places). Nonetheless, even with the ability to break bitcoins into small pieces, there are too few bitcoins in existence for institutional traders to be willing to trade them.

Our readers also inform us that it’s possible to short bitcoins on MPEx, which allows you to buy and sell BTC/USD currency pairs.

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