Network members who verify and validate transactions are usually rewarded with newly minted cryptocurrency. Many cryptocurrencies are also pseudo-anonymous: holders of the currency have two keys. One is public, such as an account number; another, private key is required to complete a transaction. So, to continue the previous example, Mehrnaz wants to buy goods from Mary using a cryptocurrency. To do so, she initiates a transaction with her private key. Mehrnaz is identified in the network by her public key, ABC, and Mary is identified by hers, XYZ. Network members verify that ABC has the money she wants to transfer to XYZ by solving a cryptography puzzle. Once the puzzle is solved, the transaction is validated, a new block representing the transaction is added to the blockchain, and the money is transferred from ABC’s wallet to XYZ’s.
Now that we understand the technology, let’s return to the genesis of cryptocurrencies. The first one, Bitcoin, was introduced in 2009 by a programmer (or group of programmers) using the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto. As of April 2018, there were more than 1,500 cryptocurrencies, according to coinmarketcap.com; along with Bitcoin, Ether and Ripple are the most widely used.
- Read more: Who Is Propping Up The Bitcoin Market?
Despite the hype, cryptocurrencies still don’t fulfill the basic functions of money as a store of value, means of exchange, and unit of account. Because their value is highly volatile, they have little use so far as a unit of account or a store of value. Limited acceptance for payment restricts their use as a medium of exchange. Unlike with fiat money, the cost of producing many cryptocurrencies is high, reflecting the large amount of energy needed to power the computers that solve the cryptographic puzzles. Finally, decentralized issuance implies that there is no entity backing the asset, so acceptance is based entirely on users’ trust.
Cryptocurrencies and their underlying technologies offer benefits but also carry risks. Distributed ledger technology could reduce the cost of international transfers, including remittances, and foster financial inclusion. Some payment services now make overseas transfers in a matter of hours, not days. The technology can provide benefits beyond the financial system. For example, it can be used to securely store important records, such as medical histories and land deeds. On the other hand, the pseudo-anonymity of many cryptocurrencies makes them vulnerable to use in money laundering and terrorism financing, if no intermediary checks the integrity of transactions or the identity of the people making them.
Cryptocurrencies could also eventually present challenges for central banks were they to affect control over the money supply and therefore the conduct of monetary policy.
- By Antoine Bouveret and Vikram Haksar