What is cryptocurrency?
Cryptocurrency is a kind of digital currency that is intended to act as a medium of exchange. Cryptocurrency has become popular in the last decade, in particular, with Bitcoin becoming the most widely tracked alternative currency. Typically, cryptocurrency is electronic-only and does not have a physical form – that graphic at the top of the page is just an artist’s vision of digital currency.
Cryptocurrency appeals to many people because of its ability to be managed without a central bank and therefore concerns around secrecy and subterfuge. It appeals because of its ability to hold value and not be inflated away by central banks that want to print money. It’s also very difficult to counterfeit due to the blockchain ledger system that manages the currency.
Cryptocurrencies have gained popularity in the investment world due to the significant appreciation seen by some coins since they were first introduced. More recently, cryptocurrencies have seen significant declines as the Federal Reserve raises interest rates, which has impacted the most speculative investments particularly hard. Bitcoin and Ethereum, two of the most popular coins, have each fallen by more than 70 percent from their all-time highs as of June 2022.
Here’s what cryptocurrency is, how it works and its significant risks.
How cryptocurrency works
Cryptocurrencies are produced, tracked and managed through what’s called a distributed ledger such as blockchain. In a distributed ledger, the currency’s movement is processed by computers in a decentralized network, to ensure the integrity of the financial data and ownership of the cryptocurrency. Think of it like a giant never-ending receipt of all the system’s transactions that is being constantly verified by everyone who can see the receipt.
This decentralized system is typical of many cryptocurrencies, which eschew a central authority. That’s part of the appeal of cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin – it keeps governments and central banks out of the currency system, reducing their interference and political maneuvering.
To this end, in some cryptocurrencies, the number of units of currency is limited. In the case of Bitcoin, the system is organized so that no more than 21 million bitcoins can be issued.
But how exactly does cryptocurrency come to exist? The key way is through what’s called mining, to use a metaphor related to the old monetary system based on gold or silver. Powerful computers, often known as miners, perform calculations and process transactions on the ledger. By doing so, they earn a unit of the currency, or at least a part of a unit. It requires a lot of expensive processing power and often a lot of electricity to perform these calculations.
Owners of the currency may store it in a cryptocurrency wallet, a computer app that allows them to spend or receive the currency. To make a transaction, users need a “key,” which allows them to write in the public ledger, noting the transfer of the money. This key may be tied to a specific person, but that person’s name is not immediately tied to the transaction.
So part of the appeal of cryptocurrency for many is that it can be used somewhat anonymously.
There’s literally no limit to the number of cryptocurrencies that could be created. The range of them is astonishing, and literally thousands of currencies popped up in the last few years, especially as Bitcoin soared into mainstream popularity in 2017. Some of the most popular cryptos include Bitcoin, Dogecoin, Ethereum, Tether and XRP.