What Is Cryptocurrency? – Investopedia
Investopedia / Tara Anand
A cryptocurrency is a digital or virtual currency that is secured by cryptography, which makes it nearly impossible to counterfeit or double-spend. 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.
Cryptocurrencies are digital or virtual currencies underpinned by cryptographic systems. They enable secure online payments without the use of third-party intermediaries. "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.
Cryptocurrencies can be mined or purchased from cryptocurrency exchanges. Not all e-commerce sites allow purchases using cryptocurrencies. In fact, cryptocurrencies, even popular ones like Bitcoin, are hardly used for retail transactions. However, the skyrocketing value of cryptocurrencies has made them popular as trading instruments. To a limited extent, they are also used for cross-border transfers.
Central to the appeal and functionality of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies is blockchain technology. As its name indicates, blockchain is essentially a set of connected blocks or an online ledger. Each block contains a set of transactions that have been independently verified by each member of the network.
Every new block generated must be verified by each node before being confirmed, making it almost impossible to forge transaction histories. The contents of the online ledger must be agreed upon by the entire network of an individual node, or computer maintaining a copy of the ledger.
Experts say that blockchain technology can serve multiple industries, such as supply chains, and processes such as online voting and crowdfunding. Financial institutions such as JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM) are testing the use of blockchain technology to lower transaction costs by streamlining payment processing.
Bitcoin is the most popular and valuable cryptocurrency. An anonymous person called Satoshi Nakamoto invented it and introduced it to the world via a white paper in 2008. There are thousands of cryptocurrencies present in the market today.
Each cryptocurrency claims to have a different function and specification. For example, Ethereum’s ether markets itself as gas for the underlying smart contract platform. Ripple’s XRP is used by banks to facilitate transfers between different geographies.
Bitcoin, which was made available to the public in 2009, remains the most widely traded and covered cryptocurrency. As of May 2022, there were over 19 million bitcoins in circulation with a total market cap of around $576 billion. Only 21 million bitcoins will ever exist.
In the wake of Bitcoin’s success, many other cryptocurrencies, known as “altcoins,” have been launched. Some of these are clones or forks of Bitcoin, while others are new currencies that were built from scratch. They include Solana, Litecoin, Ethereum, Cardano, and EOS. By November 2021, the aggregate value of all the cryptocurrencies in existence had reached over $2.1 trillion—Bitcoin represented approximately 41% of that total value.
Fiat currencies derive their authority from the government or monetary authorities. For example, each dollar bill is backstopped by the Federal Reserve.
But cryptocurrencies are not backed by any public or private entities. Therefore, it has been difficult to make a case for their legal status in different financial jurisdictions throughout the world. It doesn’t help matters that cryptocurrencies have largely functioned outside most existing financial infrastructure. The legal status of cryptocurrencies has implications for their use in daily transactions and trading. In June 2019, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) recommended that wire transfers of cryptocurrencies should be subject to the requirements of its Travel Rule, which requires AML compliance.
As of December 2021, El Salvador was the only country in the world to allow Bitcoin as legal tender for monetary transactions. In the rest of the world, cryptocurrency regulation varies by jurisdiction.
Japan’s Payment Services Act defines Bitcoin as legal property. Cryptocurrency exchanges operating in the country are subject to collect information about the customer and details relating to the wire transfer. China has banned cryptocurrency exchanges and mining within its borders. India was reported to be formulating a framework for cryptocurrencies in December.
Cryptocurrencies are legal in the European Union. Derivatives and other products that use cryptocurrencies will need to qualify as "financial instruments." In June 2021, the European Commission released the Markets in Crypto-Assets (MiCA) regulation that sets safeguards for regulation and establishes rules for companies or vendors providing financial services using cryptocurrencies.
Within the United States, the biggest and most sophisticated financial market in the world, crypto derivatives such as Bitcoin futures are available on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has said that Bitcoin and Ethereum are not securities.
Although cryptocurrencies are considered a form of money, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) treats them as a financial asset or property. And, as with most other investments, if you reap capital gains in selling or trading cryptocurrencies, the government wants a piece of the profits. On May 20, 2021, the U.S. Department of the Treasury announced a proposal that would require taxpayers to report any cryptocurrency transaction of and above $10,000 to the IRS. How exactly the IRS would tax proceeds—as capital gains or ordinary income—depends on how long the taxpayer held the cryptocurrency.
Cryptocurrencies have attracted a reputation as unstable investments, due to high investor losses as a result of scams, hacks, and bugs. Although the underlying cryptography is generally secure, the technical complexity of using and storing crypto assets can be a major hazard to new users.
In addition to the market risks associated with speculative assets, cryptocurrency investors should be aware of the following risks:
Despite these risks, cryptocurrencies have seen a major leap in prices, with the total market capitalization rising to over $1 trillion. Despite the speculative nature of the asset, some have been able to create substantial fortunes by taking on the risk of investing in early-stage cryptocurrencies.
Cryptocurrencies were introduced with the intent to revolutionize financial infrastructure. As with every revolution, however, there are tradeoffs involved. At the current stage of development for cryptocurrencies, there are many differences between the theoretical ideal of a decentralized system with cryptocurrencies and its practical implementation.
Some advantages and disadvantages of cryptocurrencies are as follows.
Total market cap of Bitcoin, as of May 2022.
Any investor can purchase cryptocurrency from popular crypto exchanges such as Coinbase, apps such as Cash App, or through brokers. Another popular way to invest in cryptocurrencies is through financial derivatives, such as CME's Bitcoin futures, or through other instruments, such as Bitcoin trusts and Bitcoin ETFs.
Cryptocurrencies are a new paradigm for money. Their promise is to streamline existing financial architecture to make it faster and cheaper. Their technology and architecture decentralize existing monetary systems and make it possible for transacting parties to exchange value and money independently of intermediary institutions such as banks.
Cryptocurrencies are generated by mining. For example, Bitcoin is generated using Bitcoin mining. The process involves downloading software that contains a partial or full history of transactions that have occurred in its network. Though anyone with a computer and an Internet connection can mine cryptocurrency, the energy- and resource-intensive nature of mining means that large firms dominate the industry.
Bitcoin is by far the most popular cryptocurrency followed by other cryptocurrencies such as Ethereum, Binance Coin, Solana, and Cardano.
The SEC has said that Bitcoin and Ethereum, the top two cryptocurrencies by market cap, are not securities. It has not commented on the status of other cryptocurrencies.
Cryptocurrencies are digital assets that are secured by cryptography. As a relatively new technology, they are highly speculative, and it is important to understand the risks involved before making an investment.
Investing in cryptocurrencies and other initial coin offerings (“ICOs”) is highly risky and speculative, and this article is not a recommendation by Investopedia or the writer to invest in cryptocurrencies or other ICOs. Because each individual's situation is unique, a qualified professional should always be consulted before making any financial decisions. Investopedia makes no representations or warranties as to the accuracy or timeliness of the information contained herein.
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