Bitcoin has evolved in recent years into a speculative investment for individuals seeking alpha from alternative assets and a possible hedge against global uncertainties and weakness in fiat currencies. Bitcoin (BTC) is a digital floating exchange that is pegged to the U.S. dollar like in foreign exchange (forex). However, unlike gold, there is no underlying physical asset on which one can base the price.
The debate over whether bitcoin should be considered a legal tender has accelerated in the wake of the high-profile attack of Japanese exchange Mt. Gox and the widespread adoption of it in payment processing at major U.S. retailers. Unlike the U.S. dollar, the Chinese yuan, or the euro, bitcoin is not recognized universally as a currency by every participant of the global markets, including regulators and government officials.
“Regulators don’t view bitcoin as a currency,” said Steve Lord, editor of “FinAlternatives” and “The Modern Money Letter.” “They view it as an ‘asset’ of value. We’ve seen regulation that has said it can be a depreciable asset, but this is very different from the forex currency trading markets.”
The growth of bitcoin trading has created a multi-billion industry that allows individuals to buy or sell the cryptocurrency across a large number of exchanges. Several brokers state that they permit bitcoin trading as part of their forex trading services. But investors should know a few simple realities about how using bitcoin trading and forex trading actually work.
This article explores the similarities and differences, and explains why traditional bitcoin exchanges are a better alternative to forex platforms adding the option of trading the cryptocurrency.
Bitcoin Trading Versus Forex
There are few differences between forex trading and bitcoin trading. In both situations, the prices of both paper and digital currencies are based on global supply and demand metrics. When demand for bitcoin rises, the price increases. When demand falls, it falls. (For more, see: Basics For Buying And Investing In Bitcoin.)
However, bitcoin is not subject to the supply uncertainty created by international central banks. Bitcoins are mined at a predictable rate, while unexpected shifts in monetary policy, like the Swiss National Bank’s decision to unpeg its currency from the euro earlier this year, can create significant swings in currency prices. Bitcoin value is linked to the fundamentals of the cryptocurrency ecosystem, while forex matters are tied to the economic decisions and conditions of an individual nation and its currency.
“Trading bitcoin is like trading anything else on an exchange. You can trade dollars for euros through forex, and dollars for bitcoins on the exchanges. It’s very similar, but it depends on the idea that it’s traded on an actual currency,” said Lord. “There’s a little bit of a disconnect when talking about it. It’s not a real thing. There are many who say it is a currency, but it’s not as dynamic as trading currencies.”
Another issue is the way individuals trade currencies. In addition to the one-to-one trading potential, currency traders can boost their leverage through derivatives and other paper contracts designed to boost returns. In the current environment, some brokers are slowly underwriting contracts that will boost leverage in the bitcoin sector, but such contracts are still in their infancy. Bitcoin trading is more similar to the ownership of an equity on the New York Stock Exchange. Like shares of Exxon Mobil Corporation (XOM), bitcoin is subject to price swings and market volatility.
“There is very little derivative work around bitcoin, in contrast to the currency market where there are many over-the-counter (OTC) contracts,” Lord said. “It’s getting there. Some are allowing investors to purchase bitcoin on margin, or they are creating new contracts. But right now, trading is mainly speculation on the rise of the price of bitcoin.” Additional financial engineering is expected.
Perhaps the greatest difference between Bitcoin and Forex is the matter of liquidity. Global currency trading is a $5 trillion market, compared to a bitcoin market valued in the billions. The smaller market in which bitcoin exists is more likely to experience a more volatile trading atmosphere and may see significant price swings over small macroeconomic events.
The currency spot market is unregulated. Regulators like the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), the NFA, and several other futures exchanges oversee options and futures that are based on currency trading. However, the CFTC has yet to issue a formal ruling on how it defines bitcoin aside from it being an asset.
However, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), and other agencies have sent a number of investor warnings on the risks associated with bitcoin investment.
“Trading” Bitcoin on Forex
A number of forex brokers like Bit4X and 1Broker state that individuals can deposit, withdraw, and trade on a bitcoin-based account. However, the functionality of 1Broker may have legal implications for Americans given the fact that contracts for difference (CFDs) are not allowed in the United States, and the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), the United Kingdom’s financial regulator, has issued warnings about Bit4X’s platform to investors.
Other forex brokers have said they can include bitcoin trading into their platforms, but given that they are not BTC-based and trade other currencies, it is unclear that they are doing anything broader than allowing users to buy and sell bitcoin through existing bitcoin exchanges.
“Most foreign brokers are going through a more traditional bitcoin exchange,” said Lord. “It’s not like they have a spot desk dealer for bitcoin on currencies. It doesn’t work that way. Bitcoin trading isn’t like what happens in spot currency trading.”
In a recent report, Goldman Sachs explained that the Chinese yuan is the most popular currency on which bitcoin trades are based. According to the investment bank, 80% of bitcoin volume is exchanged into and out of Chinese yuan. Meanwhile, Bitcoinity.org says that nearly 78% of all bitcoin trading volume is happening on China-based exchanges OKCoin, BTC China, or Huobi. Which suggests that frequent trading between bitcoin and rival fiat currencies would be a common practice.
Until forex platforms grow more robust in their bitcoin offerings, investors are better off working with bitcoin-based exchanges that trade in their national currencies. These firms have a better understanding of the trading market, security requirements, and likely will have fewer trading costs associated with each purchase. Following the collapse of Mt. Gox, these exchanges say they have improved their models with better security mechanisms. For example, Coinbase, a San Francisco-based Bitcoin exchange, has expanded to 18 countries.
Coinbase remains one of the most popular methods for investing in bitcoin. By definition, Coinbase is a wallet that allows users to store, spend, buy, and accept bitcoins. The popular platform processes purchases of goods and services from a list of merchants than includes Expedia Inc. (EXPE), Overstock.com Inc. (OSTK) and Target Corporation (TGT) (For more, see: Stores Where You Can Buy Things With Bitcoins.)
In order to purchase bitcoins, users must create a bitcoin account and initiate a transfer of money into the account every time they want to purchase a bitcoin. Coinbase does not hold currencies in their accounts, meaning that every “exchange” between dollars and bitcoin requires additional security steps. In order to purchase bitcoin, it may require three to five working days, meaning that it doesn’t work as a traditional currency exchange would. Still, you are able to purchase at an agreed price, meaning that each transaction is locked in before delivery of bitcoins to the individual account. There is a fee for each transfer from dollars to bitcoin or vice-versa, charged at 1% plus a $0.15 bank fee.
The Bottom Line
The growing popularity of bitcoin as an alternative investment has drawn the attention of forex brokers who are looking to expand their offerings. Some define bitcoin as a traditional currency, especially since the trading of bitcoins is not based on macroeconomics of a nation, but instead the underlying platform and broader reaction to shifts in global economics.
Trading bitcoin shares many similarities, but doing so through a forex broker is not required, and could be more costly if they charge higher fees than traditional bitcoin platforms like Coinbase. Investors should consider the risks associated with bitcoin and alternative currencies, and decide whether that form of speculation is right for their portfolios. (For related reading, see "Benefits & Risks of Trading Forex with Bitcoin")