Arbitrage is the simultaneous buying and selling of an asset on different markets to profit from the price difference between those markets. In a highly simplified example of how cryptocurrency arbitrage works, you would search for a specific coin that’s cheaper on Exchange A than on Exchange B. You then buy the coin on Exchange A, sell it for a higher price on Exchange B and pocket the difference.
For example, let’s assume the price of bitcoin is $60,000 on the Coinbase cryptocurrency exchange and $60,200 on Kraken. In this scenario, crypto arbitrageurs might spot this disparity and buy bitcoin on Coinbase and sell it on Kraken to pocket the $200 price difference. This is a typical example of a crypto arbitrage trade.
The first thing you need to be know is the pricing of assets on centralized exchanges depends on the most recent bid-ask matched order on the exchange order book. In other words, the most recent price at which a trader buys or sells a digital asset on an exchange is considered the real-time price of that asset on the exchange.
For instance, if the order to buy bitcoin for $60,000 is the most recently matched order on an exchange, this price becomes the latest price of bitcoin on the platform. The next matched order after this will also determine the next price of the digital asset. Therefore, price discovery on exchanges is a continuous process of stipulating the market price of a digital asset based on its most recent selling price.
Famously, in 2017 there was a moment when the price of Bitcoin on Kraken was $17,212, but only $16,979 on Bitstamp—presenting an arbitrage opportunity. In that instance, an investor could potentially make $233 per Bitcoin by buying them on Bitstamp, and then quickly selling them on Kraken.
Note that the price also tends to vary because investor demand for an asset is slightly different on each exchange.
Unlike day traders, crypto arbitrage traders do not have to predict the future prices of bitcoin nor enter trades that could take hours or days before they start generating profits.
By spotting arbitrage opportunities and capitalizing on them, traders base their decision on the expectation of generating fixed profit without necessarily analyzing market sentiments or relying on other predictive pricing strategies. Also, depending on the resources available to traders, it is possible to enter and exit an arbitrage trade in seconds or minutes.
However, this does not necessarily mean that crypto arbitrageurs are completely free from risks.