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From Lil Nas X to the climate, Kalshi wants to let investors bet on it all

September 23, 2021, 7:30 PM UTC

Wall Street has a new asset to bet on: Lil Nas X’s album.

Or, more specifically, the success of it. Upstart financial exchange Kalshi is giving investors a chance to trade on whether they think Montero—the Grammy award-winning rapper’s debut LP—will hold up to the critical acclaim it has already received and reach 230,000 album sales and digital streams by 11:59 p.m. ET Thursday. 

If investors are bullish on Lil Nas X’s latest drop, which was released Sept. 17, they can buy a “yes” contract. If not, then a “no.” Whoever is right when the outcome is determined Monday should win out $1 for every contract they hold. 

Yes-and-no questions like this are in some ways the lifeblood of Kalshi.

Think the federal government’s student loan forbearance will be extended? How about if the Transportation Security Administration will screen more than 1.65 million people on average this week? Kalshi has markets for both. One of its most popular bets asks if 2021 will be the hottest year on record, climate-wise. Investors don’t seem to think so: A “no” contract is trading at 96 cents today, versus the 4 cents it costs to buy a “yes” contract. 

Currently, the New York-based company offers more than three dozen similar so-called event contracts, sometimes churning out more than five new ones a week, its founders say. Since launching just two months ago in beta, Kalshi has grown to hundreds of thousands of contracts—and dollars—traded. The company has also garnered the support of some of the biggest names in investing. It announced $30 million in Series A funding in February, including investments from Sequoia Capital; Charles Schwab, the founder of the eponymous brokerage firm; and KKR co-chairman and co-CEO Henry Kravis.

Now, at a time when novice and veteran investors are putting their money into a wider array of assets than ever before—spanning from ETFs to meme stocks to NFTs—Kalshi is looking to expand the base of speculators, hedgers, and anyone in between who may want to trade on the outcome of events, too.

“It’s an asset class that’s easy, it’s relatively more intuitive, and it’s quite elegant because it really aligns with the opinions or the hedges that people want to do,” cofounder Tarek Mansour told Fortune. “Our long-term vision is to be the New York Stock Exchange for event contracts.”

Founded in 2018, Kalshi, whose name is based on the Arabic word for “everything,” is the joint creation of 25-year-olds Mansour and Luana Lopes Lara, who, between the two of them, interned at major Wall Street institutions including Bridgewater Associates, Citadel, and Goldman Sachs. The idea for it traces back in part to 2016 when Mansour was interning at Goldman on its equity derivatives desk. 

With the U.K. referendum on leaving the European Union that summer, investors were abuzz with what Brexit could mean for markets, and wanted some way to hedge their portfolios, said Mansour. The bank would typically construct a financial bundle that included options, swaps, and some other mix of instruments to provide its customers with some safety in case markets went into a tailspin—if and when the U.K. voted in favor of Brexit. But it was “purely a proxy for the trades they wanted to do,” Mansour said, raising the question of “why is there no exchange for people to just trade on events.”

Kalshi launched in beta testing in July after winning the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission’s approval as a designated contract market. The exchange says hundreds of thousands of contracts are traded in its most popular markets today by a mix of traders. Some are simply speculating on an event’s outcome. Others may be hedging against an exposure in their equity holdings.

The exchange is now hoping to grow its user base by attracting more retail traders, possibly by working with brokerages. Kalshi is also looking to add market makers who can help increase its liquidity. Mansour said the exchange has been talking with several brokerages and market makers, though the company declined to name the specific ones. 

Prediction markets are not a new idea. Since the early 1990s, the University of Iowa has operated the not-for-profit Iowa Electronic Markets, where traders have been able to wager on Congressional races, a presidential election in Mexico, and even the box office receipts for The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie in 2004. PredictIt, another similarly structured not-for-profit project created by Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, facilitates global political prediction markets that include topics like whether Georgia Governor Brian Kemp will be the GOP gubernatorial nominee or who will be the Japanese prime minister at the end of 2021. 

What Kalshi brings to the equation is having the Commodity Futures Trading Commission’s full blessing. 

The Iowa Electronic Markets and PredictIt are both structured as not-for-profit marketplaces built for research purposes and operate under no-action letters from the CFTC. Kalshi, in contrast, received CFTC approval to become a designated contract market in late 2020—putting it on par with trading platforms operated by some of the biggest U.S. bourses: CME, Intercontinental Exchange, and Cboe Global Markets. That regulatory status will help Kalshi as it looks to build its event contracts model into a “proper asset class that will one day maybe rival the volumes of stocks, commodities or others,” Mansour said. 

In building the exchange, Kalshi put a number of investor safeguards into place, though it does provide more room to run than the Iowa Electronic Markets and PredictIt, whose no-action status caps users’ investments to no more than several hundred dollars. The maximum amount an investor would be able to put into one of Kalshi’s markets, on the other hand, is $25,000. Kalshi does not allow investors to trade on leverage.  

Kalshi is barred by regulators from creating contracts on certain topics, including terrorism, war, and gaming. The CFTC has also expressed concern about political-linked event contracts trading on a designated contract market like Kalshi. In 2012, it rejected an effort from the North American Derivatives Exchange to do as much. Said long-time Democratic CFTC Commissioner Bart Chilton at the time, according to The New York Times: “We need to be super careful about handing part of our electoral process over to the trading pits.”

The exchange, which is able to often times go from idea to regulatory filing in just a few hours, instead tends to construct its contracts around the basis of giving market participants the ability hedge some form of an economic risk, including the climate, COVID-19, economics, or the entertainment industry. (Sports are not a part of Kalshi’s current growth plans, Mansour says.)

“We’re always focused on getting more and more interesting contracts,” cofounder Lara told Fortune, adding that many of the ideas for new contracts come from users. “The very interesting thing about having [event] contracts is they’re so tied to the news and what’s going on in the world.”

And though it’ll be a while before Kalshi and its event contract markets can reach the same level of activity that NYSE sees on any given day as the exchange hopes—more than 2 billion shares were traded on NYSE’s exchanges Wednesday—Kalshi is sure to keep rolling out more markets, whether they be tied to universal pre-kindergarten, rainfall in Seattle, or maybe even Lil Nas X’s next album.

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