What is cryptocurrency? A cryptocurrency is a digital or virtual currency that is secured by cryptography, which makes it nearly impossible to counterfeit or double-spend. Cryptocurrency is a form of payment that can be exchanged online for goods and services.
Many cryptocurrencies are decentralized networks based on blockchain technology—a distributed ledger enforced by a disparate network of computers.
A defining feature of cryptocurrencies is that they are generally not issued by any central authority, rendering them theoretically immune to government interference or manipulation. Much of the interest in these unregulated currencies is to trade for profit, with speculators at times driving prices skyward.
Cryptocurrencies are systems that allow for secure payments online which are denominated in terms of virtual “tokens,” which are represented by ledger entries internal to the system.
“Crypto” refers to the various encryption algorithms and cryptographic techniques that safeguard these entries, such as elliptical curve encryption, public-private key pairs, and hashing functions.
Types of Cryptocurrency
The first blockchain-based cryptocurrency was Bitcoin, which still remains the most popular and most valuable. Today, there are thousands of alternate cryptocurrencies with various functions and specifications. Some of these are clones or forks of Bitcoin, while others are new currencies that were built from scratch.
Bitcoin was launched in 2009 by an individual or group known by the pseudonym “Satoshi Nakamoto.” As of March 2021, there were over 18.6 million bitcoins in circulation with a total market cap of around $927 billion.
Some of the competing cryptocurrencies spawned by Bitcoin’s success, known as “altcoins,” include Litecoin, Peercoin, and Namecoin, as well as Ethereum, Cardano, and EOS.
Today, the aggregate value of all the cryptocurrencies in existence is around $1.5 trillion—Bitcoin currently represents more than 60% of the total value.
More than 6,700 different cryptocurrencies are traded publicly, according to CoinMarketCap.com, a market research website. And cryptocurrencies continue to proliferate, raising money through initial coin offerings, or ICOs. The total value of all cryptocurrencies on April 13, 2021, was more than $2.2 trillion, according to CoinMarketCap, and the total value of all bitcoins, the most popular digital currency, was pegged at about $1.2 trillion.
Cryptocurrencies appeal to their supporters for a variety of reasons. Here are some of the most popular:
- Supporters see cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin as the currency of the future and are racing to buy them now, presumably before they become more valuable
- Some supporters like the fact that cryptocurrency removes central banks from managing the money supply, since over time these banks tend to reduce the value of money via inflation
- Other supporters like the technology behind cryptocurrencies, the blockchain, because it’s a decentralized processing and recording system and can be more secure than traditional payment systems
- Some speculators like cryptocurrencies because they’re going up in value and have no interest in the currencies’ long-term acceptance as a way to move money.
Cryptocurrencies hold the promise of making it easier to transfer funds directly between two parties, without the need for a trusted third party like a bank or credit card company. These transfers are instead secured by the use of public keys and private keys and different forms of incentive systems, like Proof of Work or Proof of Stake.
In modern cryptocurrency systems, a user’s “wallet,” or account address, has a public key, while the private key is known only to the owner and is used to sign transactions. Fund transfers are completed with minimal processing fees, allowing users to avoid the steep fees charged by banks and financial institutions for wire transfers.
The semi-anonymous nature of cryptocurrency transactions makes them well-suited for a host of illegal activities, such as money laundering and tax evasion. However, cryptocurrency advocates often highly value their anonymity, citing benefits of privacy like protection for whistleblowers or activists living under repressive governments. Some cryptocurrencies are more private than others.
Bitcoin, for instance, is a relatively poor choice for conducting illegal business online, since the forensic analysis of the Bitcoin blockchain has helped authorities arrest and prosecute criminals. More privacy-oriented coins do exist, however, such as Dash, Monero, or ZCash, which are far more difficult to trace.
Cryptocurrencies may go up in value, but many investors see them as mere speculations, not real investments. The reason? Just like real currencies, cryptocurrencies generate no cash flow, so for you to profit, someone has to pay more for the currency than you did.
That’s what’s called “the greater fool” theory of investment. Contrast that to a well-managed business, which increases its value over time by growing the profitability and cash flow of the operation.
For those who see cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin as the currency of the future, it should be noted that a currency needs stability so that merchants and consumers can determine what a fair price is for goods. Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies have been anything but stable through much of their history. For example, while Bitcoin traded at close to $20,000 in December 2017, its value then dropped to as low as about $3,200 a year later. By December 2020, it was trading at record levels again.
This price volatility creates a conundrum. If bitcoins might be worth a lot more in the future, people are less likely to spend and circulate them today, making them less viable as a currency. Why spend a bitcoin when it could be worth three times the value next year?