By Jemima Kelly
LONDON (Reuters) - Digital currency bitcoin jumped to a record high above $1,200 on Friday, as investors speculated the first bitcoin exchange-traded fund (ETF) to be issued in the United States is set to receive regulatory approval.
Traditional financial players have largely shunned the web-based "crytpocurrency", viewing it as too volatile, complicated and risky, and doubting its inherent value.
But bitcoin, invented in 2008, performed better than any other currency in every year since 2010 apart from 2014, when it was the worst-performing currency, and has added almost a quarter to its value so far this year.
It soared to as high as $1,200 per bitcoin in early Asian trading on Europe's Bitstamp exchange <BTC=BTSP>, before easing to about $1,190. http://reut.rs/2lR1Mqk
That put the total value of all bitcoins in circulation -- or the digital currency's "market cap", as it is known -- at close to $20 billion, around the same size as Iceland's economy.
Some analysts say regulatory approval of a bitcoin ETF would make the currency relatively attractive to the often more cautious institutional investor market. [nL8N1G85HI]
But despite potentially high returns, low correlations with other currencies and assets, falling volatility and increasing liquidity, there is scant evidence so far that most major players are considering investing in the digital currency.
"Bitcoin is just not liquid enough for us to even think about," said Paul Lambert, fund manager and head of currency investment at Insight, in London.
"We manage billions and billions of dollars – we'd need to be able to go into that market and trade in hundreds of millions of dollars at a time, and my sense is it's not like that."
Three ETFs that track the value of bitcoin have been filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission for approval.
The SEC will decide by March 11 whether to approve one filed almost four years ago by investors Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss. If approved, it would be the first bitcoin ETF issued and regulated by a U.S. entity.
(Reporting by Jemima Kelly, graphic by Nigl Stephenson)