Speculators look to cash in on Bitcoin crisis

February 20, 2014: 2:18 PM ET
mt gox website
Mt.Gox might want to reconsider that slogan.
NEW YORK (CNNMoney)

One of the world's most prominent Bitcoin exchanges is in turmoil. But for some savvy investors, the crisis offers a big-time buying opportunity.

The Bitcoin world has been buzzing over the past few days as Tokyo-based exchange Mt.Gox. has frozen withdrawals. A Bitcoin software glitch could allow thieves to steal its customers' bitcoins, and Mt.Gox has been unable to fix the problem.

That means that owners of the digital currency who have accounts with Mt.Gox can't cash out, and many are now worried their deposits could be lost.

The problem isn't affecting other leading Bitcoin exchanges, which have taken steps to prevent the glitch from being exploited and ensure that the market continues to function.

Related: What is Bitcoin?

For the moment, Mt.Gox isn't saying much. In a brief statement Thursday, the company said it had "experienced some security problems" that "pushed back our progress."

"We are committed to solving this issue and will provide more information as soon as possible to keep everyone in the loop," the exchange said.

In the meantime, Mt.Gox customers who doubt they'll ever recover their bitcoins have begun selling the rights to them at a steep discount. Those account holders have found willing buyers among speculators who believe that Mt.Gox will indeed make good on its obligations.

The speculators could make big profits: As of Thursday afternoon, the rights to Mt.Gox bitcoins were selling for around $118 each. On well-functioning exchanges, the price was around $570 per bitcoin.

The difference is that on normal exchanges, paying $570 will put you in immediate possession of a Bitcoin. With Mt.Gox, speculators are paying for the rights to the bitcoins locked up there whenever -- if ever -- the ban on withdrawals is lifted.

Gold shines while Bitcoin tanks

If Mt.Gox is able to make account holders whole, those speculators will be able to sell their Mt.Gox bitcoins at the prevailing market price. If Mt.Gox can't make good on its obligations, those investors will be left with nothing.

Related: Silk Road heist could doom Bitcoin black markets

Does that ring a bell? That kind of trade is similar to transactions in derivative products known as credit default swaps that played a key role in the financial crisis. Credit default swaps allowed investors to bet on the health of housing-related securities; with Bitcoin, they're betting on the health of Mt.Gox.

"The market is telling you there's a huge risk that Mt.Gox is completely insolvent," said Leigh Drogen, CEO of Estimize, a site that crowd-sources earnings and sales forecasts.

The struggling exchange hasn't done much to inspire confidence. Asked in an interview with The Wall Street Journal earlier this week whether customer accounts were safe, Mt.Gox CEO Mark Karpeles refused to provide any assurances, calling the matter "confidential."

Mt.Gox did not respond to multiple requests for comment from CNNMoney.

Many investors, however, are feeling confident. One even set up his own exchange online last week at bitcoinbuilder.com for traders to buy up the rights to Mt.Gox bitcoins.

Josh Jones, creator of bitcoinbuilder.com, said he personally has "a ton" of bitcoins locked up with Mt.Gox, and he is acquiring more from other account holders in the belief that the situation will be resolved.

Jones believes he'll be able to double or triple his money. In the meantime, he's earning commissions from the transactions on his site.

"I'm pretty confident that [Mt.Gox] is going to make it all work," he said.

The Bitcoin system is still in its infancy.. But as it develops further, observers say they expect more offerings like bitcoinbuilder that mirror products in traditional financial markets.

"It took me less than 12 hours of programming to do this, and I didn't have to get approval from anyone," Jones said. "It's an uncertain time, and I think there's money to be made and lost."


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