CFTC moves forward with crypto price probe, demands info from exchanges

In a move that could have played a role in this weekend’s substantial decline in cryptocurrency prices, the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) has contacted several cryptocurrency exchanges, ordering them to turn over trading data. The order is part of an ongoing investigation into possible price manipulation on the exchanges.

According to a report from the Wall Street Journal, the CFTC’s investigation focuses on several possible schemes to manipulate prices, including “spoofing.” In spoofing, traders submit large orders that cause other traders to raise their buy price which, in turn, allows the spoofers to sell at higher prices.

The investigation comes after the derivatives marketplace CME Group Inc. began offering BTC futures trading in December. The values of the futures are based on prices found on Coinbase (NASDAQ: COIN), Bitstamp, itBit and Kraken and the commission feels that manipulation on those markets could wrongfully distort government-regulated BTC futures.

In January, CME requested that the exchanges share trading data after it had settled its first futures contracts. The exchanges refused, saying that the request was “invasive,” and CME changed the request to cover only a few hours’ worth of data. The four exchanges relented, giving up limited data of a few of its participants.

CME provides a number of BTC futures trading options looking forward for several months. The contract prices are calculated the last Friday of each month and are based on the average BTC price on the four exchanges over an hour. Both the CFTC and the CME are monitoring trading for that hour to try and determine if individual trades could affect futures pricing.

Without a great deal of information presented by the exchanges, the CFTC took matters into its own hands, sending them a subpoena for the information. That request morphed into an investigation of the exchanges and their prices, and the CFTC is now working with the Department of Justice to ascertain if any wrongdoing took place.

Bitstamp and Coinbase haven’t responded to requests for comments on the investigation. However, Kraken CEO Jesse Powell said in a statement to WSJ last Friday that the oversight claimed by the CFTC is raising questions about whether or not the exchanges want to continue participating in the index. This past week, he commented that the concerns over price manipulation are exaggerated, and that there wouldn’t be enough of a gain to justify the risk.

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