The previous six months should have been extremely beneficial to Ether’s (ETH) price, especially after the project’s most significant upgrade ever in September 2022. However, the reality was the opposite: between September 15, 2022, and March 15, 2023, Ether underperformed Bitcoin (BTC) by 10%.

Ether/Bitcoin price on Bitfinex, 2-day. Source: TradingView

The price ratio of 0.068 ETH/BTC had been holding since October 2022, a support that was broken on March 15. Whatever the reason for the underperformance, traders currently have little confidence in placing leverage bets, according to ETH futures and options data.

But first, one should consider why Ether’s price was expected to rise in the previous six months. On September 15, 2022, the Merge, a hard fork that switched the network to a proof-of-stake consensus mechanism, occurred. It enabled a much lower, even negative, coin issuing rate. But, more importantly, the change paved the way for parallel processing that aimed to bring scalability and lower transaction costs to the Ethereum network. 

The Shapella hard fork, expected to take effect on the mainnet in April, is the next step in the Ethereum network upgrade. The change will allow validators who previously deposited 32 ETH to enter the staking mechanism to withdraw in part or in full. While this development is generally positive because it gives validators more flexibility, the potential 1.76 million ETH unlock is a negative consequence.

However, there is a cap on the number of validators that can exit; therefore, the maximum daily unstake is 70,000 ETH. Moreover, after exiting the validation process, one may choose between Lido, Rocket Pool, or a decentralized finance (DeFi) application for yield mechanisms. These coins will not necessarily be sold at the market.

Let’s look at Ether derivatives data to understand if the recent drop below the 0.068 ETH/BTC ratio has affected investors’ sentiment.

ETH futures recovered from a state of panic

In healthy markets, the annualized three-month futures premium should trade between 5% and 10% to cover associated costs and risks. However, when the contract trades at a discount (backwardation) relative to traditional spot markets, it indicates traders’ lack of confidence and is regarded as a bearish indicator.

Ether 2-month futures annualized premium. Source: Laevitas.ch

Derivatives traders became uncomfortable holding leverage long (bull) positions as the Ether futures premium moved below zero on March 11, down from 3.5% just two days prior. More importantly, the current 2.5% premium remains modest and distant from the 5% neutral-to-bullish threshold.

Nonetheless, declining demand for leverage longs (bulls) does not necessarily imply an expectation of negative price action. As a result, traders should examine Ether’s options markets to understand how whales and market makers price the likelihood of future price movements.

Related: Lark Davis on fighting social media storms, and why he’s an ETH bull — Hall of Flame

ETH options confirm a lack of risk appetite

The 25% delta skew is a telling sign when market makers and arbitrage desks are overcharging for upside or downside protection. In bear markets, options investors give higher odds for a price dump, causing the skew indicator to rise above 8%. On the other hand, bullish markets tend to drive the skew metric below -8%, meaning the bearish put options are in less demand.

Ether 30-day options 25% delta skew: Source: Laevitas.ch

On March 3, the delta skew crossed the bearish 8% threshold, indicating stress among professional traders. The fear levels peaked on March 10, when the price of Ether plummeted to $1,370, its lowest level in 56 days, although the price of ETH rebounded above $1,480 on March 12.

Surprisingly, on March 12, the 25% delta skew metric continued to rise, reaching its highest level of skepticism since November 2022. That happened just hours before Ether’s price rose 20% in 48 hours. That explains why ETH traders shorting futures contracts faced $507 million in liquidations.

The 3% delta skew metric currently signals a balanced demand for ETH call and put options. When combined with the neutral stance on ETH futures premium, the derivatives market indicates that professional traders are hesitant to place either bullish or bearish bets. Unfortunately, ETH derivatives metrics do not favor traders expecting Ether to reclaim the 0.068 level against Bitcoin in the near term.

The views, thoughts and opinions expressed here are the authors’ alone and do not necessarily reflect or represent the views and opinions of Cointelegraph.