A blockchain replaces central counterparties with time-consuming consensus protocols to record the transfer of ownership. This settlement latency slows cross-exchange trading, exposing arbitrageurs to price risk. Off-chain settlement, instead, exposes arbitrageurs to costly default risk. We show with Bitcoin network and order book data that cross-exchange price differences coincide with periods of high settlement latency, asset flows chase arbitrage opportunities, and price differences across exchanges with low default risk are smaller. Blockchain-based trading thus faces a dilemma: Reliable consensus protocols require time-consuming settlement latency, leading to arbitrage limits. Circumventing such arbitrage costs is possible only by reinstalling trusted intermediation, which mitigates default risk.
This paper replaces an earlier draft titled “Limits to Arbitrage in Markets with Stochastic Settlement Latency”.