By now you’ve likely heard of Bitcoin and the cryptocurrency market, even if you haven’t started adding digital assets to your investment portfolio.
A 2021 survey by New York Digital Investment Group found that while 53% of Americans didn’t own digital assets, 55% said they would consider adding cryptocurrencies to their portfolio.
Cryptocurrencies have proven to be a volatile asset class, posting double-digit percentage gains sometimes within a single day. While such wild price swings have generated lucrative returns for some investors, others have suffered painful losses.
It’s important for investors to understand the fundamentals and risks of the cryptocurrency market before they start investing. Here’s a closer look at some basics.
Some consider cryptocurrencies to be a form of currency, while others see them as a store of value similar to gold.
We already use “digital money” in the form of credit and debit cards and services like PayPal. Little by little we have been phasing out our use of paper and metal money. Some countries, like Sweden, are phasing out paper money altogether. Meanwhile, central banks around the world are looking into central bank digital currencies or CBDCs, virtual money that has the backing of a sovereign nation in the way fiat currencies do.
In 2008, Satoshi Nakamoto published a paper entitled “Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System.” Satoshi, the inventor of bitcoin, is a person or group of people who have not been identified and remain anonymous to this day. In 2009, the first bitcoin transaction took place between Satoshi and programmer Hal Finney. The first altcoins were released in 2011, including Litecoin.
News reports tied use of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies to illegal activity on the dark web. Some major scams and company failures, including the theft of hundreds of thousands of Bitcoins on the crypto exchange Mt. Gox, contributed to volatility in the market’s early years.
However, by 2017, mainstream interest in Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies skyrocketed, sending its price close to $20,00. Prices tumbled in 2018 but climbed again in 2020, as stay-at-home and pandemic stimulus package checks drove investor money back into the cryptocurrency market.
Bitcoin soared to above $60,000 and the entire crypto market surpassed $2 trillion in market value. However, since then, worries of a regulatory crackdown have caused prices to fall again, with Bitcoin halving in value to around $30,000.
Not every cryptocurrency is built using blockchain technology, but some of the largest ones are. A blockchain is an unchangeable record of transactions. These transactions don’t have to be monetary in nature. Blockchains can be used to create contracts, to track the movement of products, to record votes, to prove that property transfers took place, and much more.
Cryptocurrencies and blockchains work hand in hand. For example, here’s how Bitcoin mining works: new coins are created through the process of maintaining the accuracy of its blockchain. Miners use computing power to solve complex cryptographic equations. As these equations are solved, they prove that all of the transactional information on the bitcoin blockchain is accurate.
As a reward for maintaining the blockchain, Bitcoins are created and given to the miners. The bitcoin blockchain is public and decentralized. This means that anyone can view any transaction between two bitcoin addresses. However, you don’t know who owns those addresses.
The decentralization of the blockchain means that there isn’t a single individual, company, or government in charge of Bitcoin and the blockchain. Changes to the blockchain code can be proposed and adopted by the miners. However, 51% or more miners must opt into a change in order for it to be implemented, otherwise Bitcoin forks into two markets.
Every investment comes with risks, and cryptocurrencies are no exception. Here are some the biggest ones investors should be aware of:
1. Price Volatility: As mentioned, the price of Bitcoin halved within the span of a couple weeks in 2021. While the stock market is known for being a volatile asset class, the turbulence in share prices is nowhere near that of cryptocurrency prices. The market is still highly speculative, making it prone to big price swings and increasing the risk of investors locking in losses.
Recommended: Why is Bitcoin So Volatile?
2. Theft: One of the choices investors have to make after buying cryptocurrencies is whether to store the coins and tokens in a hot wallet or cold wallet. Hot wallets are digital storage tools. The risk to them is that they’re more vulnerable to hacks and theft. Take for instance the Mt. Gox incident that occurred in 2011. While the cryptocurrency market has come a long way in terms of security since then, theft and hacks are still a risk.
3. Fraud and Scams: The buzzy nature of the cryptocurrency industry unfortunately means that scammers are also drawn to the market. In 2021, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reported that between October 2020 and May 2021, more than 7,000 people reported losses of more than $80 million from bogus investment opportunities.
4. Forgotten Keys: While the cold wallet storage solution can prevent hacks, some users of this method have fallen into the unfortunate situation of not remembering their wallet password–or “keys” in crypto lingo. That means there could be fortunes that individuals are not able to cash in on. Of the existing 18.5 million Bitcoin in circulation in January 2021, about 20% was estimated to be “lost” or trapped in a wallet.
5. Regulatory Oversight: Chinese regulators stoked volatility in the cryptocurrency market in 2021, after clamping down on crypto mining operations and ordering payment firms to not do business with companies in the industry. U.K. regulators have also banned a leading crypto exchange. More crypto rules and regulation, including from countries like the U.S., are also expected, which could cause repercussions for usage and prices.
Basic Cryptocurrency Terminology to Know
As cryptocurrency has been growing over the past decade, industry jargon has developed. This terminology is important to know when starting to purchase and store cryptocurrencies. Here are some of the most commonly used words in the crypto space:
If you’re using bitcoin, you have a public “address” where people can send you bitcoins. If you send someone bitcoins, they will see that they received them from your public address. Anyone can look up that public address and see how many bitcoins are in it.
You also have a private address, which is how you secure your bitcoins. Never give anyone your private address. Addresses are generally made up of a string of alphanumeric characters.
Any cryptocurrency that is not bitcoin is called an altcoin.
Crypto is simply a shorter name for cryptocurrency.
As mentioned above, blockchain isn’t owned or controlled by anyone, making it decentralized. Many people in the blockchain space feel that decentralization creates more fairness.
A dispersed recording of replicable, synchronized data. In the case of cryptocurrencies, the blockchain is a distributed ledger shared across many different computers and networks.
Websites where you can purchase and sell cryptocurrencies are called exchanges.
A “fork” is when a blockchain permanently splits into a new version. This can take place when miners vote on a change, when a group takes over 51% of the network and changes the blockchain, or if there’s a bug or more commonly a new set of consensus rules come into existence.
Fear, uncertainty, doubt. FUD describes the emotions that can create panic and cause people to make decisions that affect the market.
Start buying Bitcoin, Ethereum,
and Litecoin today.
HODL is the philosophy of holding onto and not selling cryptocurrencies. A misspelling of “hold,” this was a joke that became a common term.
ICO is short for initial coin offering. An ICO is held when a company is raising funds and sells tokens to public or private buyers who then become backers of the project.
The computing process used to create crypto tokens. Not all cryptocurrencies are created using mining, but it is a common method.
There are ways that you can set up a cryptocurrency transaction which require multiple people to sign off on the transaction for it to go through. This is called a multisig transaction.
Peer to Peer
A peer-to-peer (more commonly abbreviated as “P2P”) system doesn’t have a central controller; instead, users interact directly with one another. For example, there are peer-to-peer exchanges where you can sell your bitcoins directly to someone in your local area.
When cryptocurrency information gets sensationalized in the media to raise its price or popularity, this is called pumping.
Smart contracts are coded contracts written into blockchains that allow automated transactions to be executed.
Cryptocurrencies are stored in virtual “wallets.” If you keep your cryptocurrencies on an exchange, that exchange controls your wallet. You can also use a digital wallet such as an app on your phone or computer.
One popular form of cryptocurrency wallet is a hardware wallet, which is like a flash drive that stores your cryptocurrencies offline but allows an easy connection to your computer for transacting. There are also paper wallets, which are (believe it or not) simply written records of your public and private addresses for your cryptocurrency. Online wallets are called hot wallets, while offline wallets are called cold wallets or cold storage.
A person who owns a significant amount of a cryptocurrency. When that person trades it they can actually affect the market price. These people are called whales.
The Top 10 Largest Cryptocurrencies
There are more than 7,000 cryptocurrencies on the market today, according to estimates. Each of them offers different characteristics in their transaction times, liquidity, privacy, and other factors.
Below are the top 10 biggest by market cap, as of July 23, 2021, according to data from CoinMarketCap, which calculates cryptocurrency market caps by taking the price of a digital currency and multiplying it by the number of coins in circulation.
For instance, with Bitcoin, the world’s biggest cryptocurrency by market cap, the price is $32,439.03 and the circulation supply is 18,764,331 on July 23, 2021. Multiplying the two numbers gets a market cap of about $609 billion. CoinMarketCap does this with the biggest cryptocurrencies and then ranks by the market cap of each.
Recommended: Top 30 Crypto By Market Cap
As the first to market, Bitcoin (BTC) continues to be the most popular and highest valued crypto. Any new industry development—including physical ATMs and crypto credit cards—generally works with Bitcoin first.
Major companies now accept Bitcoin, but Bitcoin has a scalability issue, in that it currently can only process seven transactions per second. Visa®, by contrast, can process a maximum of 24,000 per second. Work is being done to improve this transaction speed, but for now Bitcoin may not be the best long-term store of currency to buy your latte with.
Although ethereum (ETH) is a cryptocurrency—also known as ether—its main appeal stems from its software platform. The Ethereum network allows for the creation of smart contracts and decentralized applications to be built on it. The cryptocurrency is used to develop and run applications on the software platform, and by investors purchasing other tokens using ether.
Tether (USDT) was the first cryptocurrency marketed as a “stablecoin”–virtual money designed to maintain a fixed value. In the case of Tether, the value of the coin is pegged to a fiat currency–the U.S. dollar. Hence, its ticker is USDT.
In February 2021, the New York attorney general’s office settled a two-year investigation on tether and its sister crypto exchange Bitfinex. Tether had claimed that all its tokens were backed on a one-to-one basis by U.S. dollars in cash reserves.
4. Binance Coin
Binance is the world’s largest cryptocurrency exchange–popular because of its low trading fees. Binance Coin (BNB) is the cryptocurrency “native” to the exchange, which means that it was designed specifically to be used in the Binance ecosystem. Binance Coin launched in 2017 with an ICO.
Binance tries to incentivize investors to use Binance Coin by allowing them to get a 25% discount on trading fees if they use BNB to pay for trades.
While Cardano lacks some features, it’s considered by some market participants to be a work in progress and has potential to be a cheaper alternative to Ethereum in being a basis for DeFi and NFT projects.
A key feature of ADA is that it has a proof-of-stake blockchain. This means the complicated proof-of-work calculations and high electricity usage required for mining coins like Bitcoin aren’t necessary. Instead, all ADA coins are pre-mined. That could make Cardano appealing to investors who have been critical of the environmental costs of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin.
Ripple (XRP) was created to be used by existing banking institutions. Ripple network can process 1,500 transactions per second. Unlike Bitcoin and many other cryptocurrencies, XRP is not on a blockchain network. Instead, it’s based on what’s called a “hash tree.”
In 2020, the Securities and Exchange Commission sued Ripple and its executives for allegedly misleading investors in XRP by selling more than $1 billion of the virtual tokens without registering with the regulator.
7. USD Coin
USD Coin (USDC) is a stablecoin powered by Ethereum blockchain that is pegged to the U.S. dollar. After the stablecoin Tether came under regulatory trouble for how much it actually backs in reserves, Circle has said its reserves are evaluated and audited by Chicago-based accounting firm Grant Thornton LLP.
In March 2021, Visa announced that it would allow the use of USDC to settle transactions on its payment network–a sign of mainstream acceptance of the crypto market.
Dogecoin had a meteoric rise in 2021, surging through the month of May. The cryptocurrency was started as a joke by its founders in 2013. One of Dogecoin’s most notable features is that it has a Shiba Inu dog on its symbol.
Dogecoin enjoyed popularity in a pattern similar to the way meme stocks did in 2020. Tesla CEO Elon Musk was an advocate of Dogecoin, touting it on social media. On June 1, cryptocurrency exchange Coinbase said it would accommodate Dogecoin, signalling more mainstream acceptance of the cryptocurrency.
Polkadot’s coin is called dot (DOT). Polkdot’s creator Gavin Wood is also the co-founder of Ethereum. He wrote the original white paper for Polkadot in 2016.
Central to Polkadot are “parachains”–blockchains that can run higher transaction throughput than Ethereum through design. “Parallel blockchains”–transactions that are spread across multiple computers, similar to parallel processing–have also been touted as having potential as an alternative to Ethereum.
10. Binance USD
Binance USD (BUSD) is a stablecoin that is issued by Binance, the world’s largest cryptocurrency exchange. It’s pegged to the U.S. dollar on a one-to-one basis. It runs on the Ethereum network so can be accepted everywhere for payments or loans where other ERC-20 tokens are.
Cryptocurrencies can be purchased on major cryptocurrency exchanges or crypto trading platforms. While the digital-asset market is new, trendy and could be a growth opportunity, it’s important for investors to understand that it’s also highly speculative and that all the issues related to safety and security haven’t been worked out.
On SoFi Invest®, investors can trade their first cryptocurrency with as little as $10. Doing so will get them a bonus of $10 in Bitcoin. Unlike the stock market, investors can also trade cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, Litecoin and Ethereum 24/7. Plus, SoFi takes security seriously and uses a number of tools to keep investors' crypto holdings secure.
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