Bitcoin futures rise on virtual currency

The first-ever bitcoin future jumped after it began trading as the increasingly popular virtual currency made its debut on a major US exchange.

What is bitcoin, the digital currency demanded as payment by cyberattackers?

The futures contract that expires in January surged more than $US3000 ($A4200) to $US18,580 ($A26,012) eight hours after trading launched on the Chicago Board Options Exchange. The contract opened at $US15,000 ($A21,000), according to data from the CBOE.

The CBOE futures don't involve actual bitcoin. They're securities that will track the price of bitcoin on Gemini, one of the larger bitcoin exchanges.

The price of a bitcoin has soared since beginning the year below $US1000 ($A1400), hitting a peak of more than $US16,858 ($A23,601) on December 7 on the bitcoin exchange Coindesk.

The digital currency has had more than its fair share of critics on Wall Street. JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon has called bitcoin "a fraud." Thomas Peterffy, chairman of the broker-dealer Interactive Brokers Group, expressed deep concerns about the trading of bitcoin futures last month, saying "there is no fundamental basis for valuation of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, and they may assume any price from one day to the next."

Bitcoin is the world's most popular virtual currency. Such currencies are not tied to a bank or government and allow users to spend money anonymously. They are basically lines of computer code that are digitally signed each time they are traded.

A debate is raging on the merits of such currencies. Some say they serve merely to facilitate money laundering and illicit, anonymous payments. Others say they can be helpful methods of payment, such as in crisis situations where national currencies have collapsed.

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