Bitcoin advocates have said for years that cryptocurrency is more egalitarian than fiat currency, and that crypto is a way to redistribute financial power that has traditionally been in the hands of banks.
But a new study by the National Bureau of Economic Research reveals that a minuscule group of investors control more of the supply of Bitcoin. Researchers found that 0.01% of the cryptocurrency’s holders control 27% of the supply.
The study said 10,000 Bitcoin accounts hold 5 million out of the 19 million coins in circulation, or the equivalent of about $232 billion. An estimated 114 million accounts hold Bitcoin worldwide, according to crypto.com. That’s more concentrated wealth than the 1% of affluent Americans who currently control about one-third of U.S. dollars, a figure that many have pointed to as an indicator of massive inequality.
The NBER study, conducted by finance professors Antoinette Schoar at the MIT Sloan School of Management and Igor Makarov of the London School of Economics, mapped out for the first time every Bitcoin transaction since the cryptocurrency was created around 2008.
It’s unclear who the Bitcoin account holders are that make up that .01%.
Along with the findings that control of Bitcoin is largely in the hands of a small group of investors, the study also revealed what Bitcoin is spent on. According to the study, 90% of Bitcoin transactions are not a result of a user buying something with the currency, but rather transactions between a single user’s own crypto accounts. That may be because Bitcoin transactions are tracked on a public ledger, many Bitcoin users move their funds across multiple wallets to make tracing them harder. Of the remaining 10% of transactions, the report said less than 3% of them are linked to illegal transactions, scams, or gambling. The bulk of that 10% is linked to transactions between different types of exchanges and trading desks that represent institutional investors, the report said.
Early investors in Bitcoin have reaped tremendous benefits if they held on to the cryptocurrency. Priced at around $5,000 per coin in March 2020, the famously volatile digital currency reached as high as $68,990 in November, according to CoinDesk.
Correction, Dec. 20, 2021: Due to an editing error, a previous headline on this article misstated the percentage of Bitcoin holders who control nearly a third of the supply.
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