Bitcoin is a decentralized digital currency that was created in 2009 by an unknown person using the name Satoshi Nakamoto. Transactions are made with no middlemen – meaning, no banks! Bitcoin can be used to book hotels on Expedia, shop for furniture on Overstock and buy Xbox games. But much of the hype is about getting rich by trading it. The price of bitcoin skyrocketed into the thousands in 2017.
Bitcoin is a peer-to-peer currency, meaning that it is a decentralized system that operates without a central bank or administrator. Transactions are verified by network nodes through cryptography and recorded in a public distributed ledger called a blockchain. Bitcoin is unique in that there are a finite number of them: 21 million. Satoshi Nakamoto, bitcoin’s enigmatic founder, arrived at that number by assuming people would discover, or “mine,” a set number of blocks of transactions daily.
Every four years, the number of bitcoins released relative to the previous cycle gets cut in half, as does the reward to miners for discovering new blocks. (The reward right now is 12.5 bitcoins.) As a result, the number of bitcoins in circulation will approach 21 million, but never hit it.
This means bitcoin never experiences inflation. Unlike US dollars, whose buying power the Fed can dilute by printing more greenbacks, there simply won’t be more bitcoin available in the future. That has worried some skeptics, as it means a hack could be catastrophic in wiping out people’s bitcoin wallets, with less hope for reimbursement.
Third-party internet services called online wallets offer similar functionality but may be easier to use. In this case, credentials to access funds are stored with the online wallet provider rather than on the user’s hardware. As a result, the user must have complete trust in the online wallet provider. A malicious provider or a breach in server security may cause entrusted bitcoins to be stolen. An example of such a security breach occurred with Mt. Gox in 2011. This has led to the often-repeated meme “Not your keys, not your bitcoin”.
The bitcoin protocol specifies that the reward for adding a block will be halved every 210,000 blocks (approximately every four years). Eventually, the reward will decrease to zero, and the limit of 21 million bitcoins will be reached c. 2140; the record keeping will then be rewarded solely by transaction fees.
In other words, bitcoin halvings have traditionally been exceptionally bullish catalysts for cryptocurrencies. The first cut in 2012 saw the cryptocurrency go from a little over $10 to over $1,000 by 2013. The second halving in 2016 saw the price soar from $600 to nearly $20,000 by the end of 2017.
Bitcoin is like “digital gold” in many ways. Like gold, bitcoin cannot simply be created arbitrarily; it requires work to “extract”. While gold must be extracted from the physical earth, bitcoin must be “mined” via computational means.
Bitcoin also has a stipulation—set forth in its source code—that it must have a limited and finite supply. For this reason, there will only ever be 21 million bitcoins ever produced. On average, these bitcoins are introduced to the bitcoin supply at a fixed rate of one block every ten minutes.
In addition, the amount of bitcoin released in each of these aforementioned blocks is reduced by 50% every four years. This means that the final bitcoin will be mined in the year 2140. So far, about 18.5 million bitcoin have been mined; this leaves less than three million that have yet to be introduced into circulation.
The bitcoin mining process rewards miners with a chunk of bitcoin upon successful verification of a block. This process adapts over time. When bitcoin first launched, the reward was 50 bitcoin. In 2012, it halved to 25 bitcoin. In 2016, it halved again to 12.5 bitcoin. As of February 2021, miners gain 6.25 bitcoin for every new block mined—equal to about $294,168.75 based on February 24, 2021, value.
This effectively lowers Bitcoin’s inflation rate in half every four years. The reward will continue to halve every four years until the final bitcoin has been mined. In actuality, the final bitcoin is unlikely to be mined until around the year 2140 or 2141 as the block reward approach zero.