Crypto

Popular Hedge-Fund Trade Pushes Bitcoin-Futures Shorts to Record $7.5 Billion

Hedge funds hold nearly 18,000 short Bitcoin futures contracts, reflecting a $7.5 billion market-neutral basis trade strategy.

By Alex P. Chase

6/11, 12:49 EDT
Bitcoin / U.S. dollar
Bitcoin / US Dollar
Defiance Daily Short Digitizing the Economy ETF
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Key Takeaway

  • Bitcoin futures net short interest among leveraged funds hits a record high of $7.5 billion, driven by the popular basis trade strategy.
  • The launch of spot-Bitcoin ETFs in January has facilitated this market-neutral strategy, simplifying cash-and-carry trades via regulated brokers.
  • Despite significant ETF inflows totaling $15.6 billion since January, short-term ETF flow data may not accurately reflect organic investor demand for Bitcoin.

Record Short Interest in Bitcoin Futures

Bitcoin futures have reached a record high in net short interest among leveraged funds, with nearly 18,000 CME Bitcoin futures contracts currently held short. This surge in short interest, amounting to over $7.5 billion, is not necessarily indicative of bearish sentiment among hedge funds. Instead, it reflects the growing popularity of a market-neutral strategy known as the basis trade. Ravi Doshi, head of markets at FalconX, noted, "The popularity of the basis trade can be observed through the short interest on CME BTC futures held by hedge funds." This strategy involves profiting from discrepancies between spot and futures markets, and has become more prevalent since the launch of spot-Bitcoin exchange-traded funds (ETFs) in January.

Basis Trade and ETF Dynamics

The basis trade has been facilitated by the introduction of spot-Bitcoin ETFs, which now collectively hold over $61 billion in assets. Traders can buy these ETFs and sell futures contracts representing Bitcoin at higher levels, profiting from the price differences. Vetle Lunde, senior analyst at K33 Research, emphasized that the basis trade should not be mistaken as the main driver of ETF flows. "The popular angle that ETF flows are offset by CME shorts is wrong," Lunde said. "The organic directional demand is the key source behind the strong ETF flow, not traders motivated by the chunky futures premium arbitrage." Despite the popularity of the basis trade, it complicates the interpretation of short-term ETF flow data as a clean indicator of investor interest in Bitcoin.

Bitcoin's Price Stagnation Amid Record ETF Inflows

Despite record inflows into U.S.-listed spot ETFs, Bitcoin's spot price has remained relatively unchanged, coiling in a narrow range. This contrasts with the first quarter when prices surged as ETFs drew in billions. Pseudonymous market observer CMS Holdings explained on X, "It’s entities buying ETF and selling [CME] futures to roll down basis some primes are letting entities net that This is also why ETF inflows are high, but the spot is relatively unchanged." This cash-and-carry arbitrage strategy, where traders short Bitcoin futures while taking long positions in ETFs, has left Bitcoin's price directionless. BitMEX Research also supports this view, stating, "We agree with @cmsholdings that the CME commitment of traders reported increase in short positions in the hedge fund category is related to the basis trade."

Street Views

  • Ravi Doshi, FalconX (Neutral on Bitcoin futures):

    "The popularity of the basis trade can be observed through the short interest on CME BTC futures held by hedge funds. There is over $7.5 billion in net-short futures currently. In 2021, when BTC basis was significantly higher than it is now, the peak short position was only $2B."

  • Vetle Lunde, K33 Research (Neutral on ETF flows and Bitcoin futures):

    "The popular angle that ETF flows are offset by CME shorts is wrong... The organic directional demand is the key source behind the strong ETF flow, not traders motivated by the chunky futures premium arbitrage."
    "Net BTC ETF inflows are scrutinized daily, yet those inflows do not always represent organic demand for BTC."