CFTC Orders PredictIt Shut Down- Can Political Betting Survive?

Political betting has long been in a legal grey area. It seems that the Commodities Futures Trading Commission wants to make everything black and white, but at least for now it has simply made everything murkier.

PredictIt is the largest political betting site in the US; if you want to know who is likely to win an upcoming election, its the best place to find a quick answer. Prediction markets have two great virtues- they are usually right about what’s going to happen, and if they aren’t you can bet, making money and improving their accuracy at the same time.

PredictIt has operated since 2014 under a “no-action letter” from the CFTC. Effectively, the regulators told them “we’re not saying what you’re doing is definitely legal, but we know about it and have no plans to shut you down as long as you stick to the limits described in this letter”. But last week the CFTC withdrew their letter and ordered PredictIt to shut down by February 2023.

My first question was, why? Why shut them down now after 8 years when all their operations seem to be working as usual? The CFTC said only that “DMO has determined that Victoria University has not operated its market in compliance with the terms of the letter and as a result has withdrawn it”, but did not specify which of the terms PredictIt violated, leaving us to speculate. Did the scale simply get too big? Did they advertise too heavily? Did Victoria University, the official operator, let too much be handled by a for-profit subcontractor? Did some of their markets stray too far from the “binary option contracts concerning political election outcomes and economic indicators” they were authorized for?

PredictIt hasn’t been much clearer about what happened, simply putting a notice on their site. Their CEO did an interview on the Star Spangled Gamblers podcast where he said there was no one thing that triggered the CFTC but did mention “scope” as a concern- which I interpret to mean that they offered some types of markets the CFTC didn’t like, perhaps markets like “how many times will Donald Trump tweet this month”.

The other big question here is about PredictIt’s competitors. In 2021 it seemed like we were entering a golden age of real-money prediction markets, with crypto-based PolyMarket and economics-focused Kalshi joining PredictIt. I looked forward to seeing this competition play out in the marketplace, but it now seems like we’re headed toward a Kalshi-only monopoly where they win not by offering the product users like best, but by having the best relationship with regulators. Polymarket had offered markets without even a no-action letter, based on the crypto ethos of “better to ask forgiveness than permission”; this January the CFTC hit them with a $1.5 million fine and ordered them to stop serving US customers.

If the CFTC doesn’t reverse their decision to shut down PredictIt, then February 2023 will see a Kalshi monopoly. This has led to speculation that Kalshi is behind the attack on PredictIt; their cofounder issued this not-quite-a-denial. But it certainly looks bad for the CFTC that they are effectively giving a monopoly to the company that hires the most ex-CFTC members.

For now you can still bet on PredictIt or Kalshi (or even Polymarket if you’re outside the US). If you’d like to petition the CFTC about PredictIt you can do so here. It might actually work; while the CFTC’s recent actions certainly look cronyistic, they’ve been reasonable compared to other regulators. They’re giving PredictIt no fines and several months to wind down, and even Polymarket gets to keep serving non-US customers from US soil. I’d likely make different decisions if I were at CFTC but the ideal solution here is a change in the law itself, as we’ve seen recently in sports betting. Prediction markets are impressive generators and aggregators of information, and politics and policy are at least as valuable an application as sports. To go meta, suppose we want to know- will PredictIt survive past February? There’s a prediction market for that, and its currently saying they’ve got a 20% chance.

Predicting the NYC Mayoral Race

Yesterday, co-blogger Jeremy asked “Should Andrew Yang Wait To Concede?” in the New York City mayoral race. He argued that while Yang finished 4th in 1st-place primary votes, the new Ranked Choice Voting system meant he could still win. This is of course true in theory- but today I argue it is very unlikely in practice.

I say this not because I have scrutinized all the polls to predict the exact distribution of 2nd- and 3rd-place votes, or because I think I know more than Jeremy about political science or New York. Instead, any time I’m wondering about whether something will happen and I don’t have a strong opinion based on my own knowledge, I simply check what markets have to say. In this case, there are prediction markets bearing on this exact issue. The odds from PredictIt, shown below, have Adams (who finished with the most 1st-place votes, 32%) as the heavy favorite, with Yang reduced to an approximately 1% chance of winning.

But Jeremy is right to highlight that the Ranked-Choice system makes it less obvious who will win. You can see PredictIt traders still think that Garcia, who finished with 19% of 1st-place votes, is substantially more likely to win than Wiley, who finished with 22% (though the new system didn’t matter in the Republican primary, where Sliwa won with a clear majority of 1st-place votes).

Crypto-based betting platform Polymarket has actually closed their market for Yang already, declaring that he lost, though they agree with PredictIt that the overall election isn’t over and that Garcia still has a real chance despite coming in 3rd for 1st-place votes.

Of course, prediction markets aren’t perfect- they are certainly less accurate (easier to beat) than the stock market, as my track record of betting in both shows. But they make for a great first approximation on subjects you don’t know well, and if you think you do know better, they offer you the chance to make money and to make the odds more accurate. If you think Yang will still win, you can go bet on PredictIt and potentially 100x your money. Or if you think this ranked choice stuff is nonsense and Adams obviously won, you can pick up an easy 10% return. Or if you’re like me in this case, you can stay out of it, take a quick glance at the markets, and get a good idea of what is likely to happen without having to read the news or the pundits.