21 Million Bitcoin Limit: What Happens When All the Bitcoins Are Mined?

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Bitcoin continues to gain traction and popularity. Just a year and a half ago, tech experts and pundits were optimistic about its future growth, but few expected Bitcoin to take off like it did in 2021. The trend may yet continue unabated. Already 18.77 million Bitcoins have been mined. This leads us to a most perplexing question: What happens when all Bitcoins are mined? 

Considering that there are just over 2 million Bitcoins left, this is a real concern for everyone involved. Here is an explanation of what happens when all of the remaining Bitcoins have been mined.

How Many Bitcoins Are Left to Mine?

As of December 2021, approximately 18.77 million Bitcoins are in circulation. This means that there are only 2.13 million Bitcoins left for mining.

When Bitcoin’s inventor, Satoshi Nakamoto, created the virtual currency in 2008, the total Bitcoin supply was pegged at 21 million. One of the reasons for the Bitcoin supply cap was to ensure a currency without inflation. Since Bitcoins are intended for transactional use, just like paper currency, too many Bitcoins in the market could generate wild price swings.

With that in mind, the inventor stipulated a 21 million Bitcoin limit to control the supply and, thus, future price fluctuations.

One way to control the mechanism was to release Bitcoins gradually, without overwhelming the market with all 21 million Bitcoins at once. To do this, the Bitcoin code was designed to allow only a fixed number of Bitcoins to be mined every year until the 21 million Bitcoin limit is reached.

Bitcoin Halving

To ensure the gradual flow of Bitcoins, Satoshi Nakamoto introduced the concept of halving. This mechanism reduces the number of available Bitcoins entering circulation by half every three years and nine months. If the trend continues, it means that almost all 21 million Bitcoins will be mined by the end of 2078. In other words, there will be no more Bitcoins to mine then.

There is some confusion surrounding the exact date when the total Bitcoin supply will end for those wondering what happens when all Bitcoins are mined. If you search Google for the answer, chances are that the date of this event is listed as 2040, instead of 2078. This is partly because informal studies conclude that the halving takes place every four years, instead of every three years and nine months. Most likely, if the halving trend continues as it is and everything else remains constant, the Bitcoin supply cap will be reached around 2078.

The Total Supply of Bitcoin

How Many Bitcoins Are There?

Every day, there are fewer Bitcoin blocks available to mine as the Bitcoin mining end date gradually approaches.

However, it’s important to understand that not every Bitcoin mined to date is in circulation — which further reduces the total supply of Bitcoins in circulation at any given moment. There are many reasons why the existing supply of Bitcoins doesn’t correlate to the total Bitcoins already mined.

One of the main reasons is the method of storing Bitcoin. Since the owner needs to protect their Bitcoin using wallets and passwords, there is no way to access the stored Bitcoins if the owner passes away without giving someone else access to the password. Bitcoin can also be rendered permanently inaccessible due to other errors on the part of its owners. Bitcoin is unlike other assets: it’s almost impossible to retrieve it without the consent of the owner.

According to a recent study by the New York Times, almost 20% of Bitcoins are trapped in inaccessible wallets. The total value of these trapped Bitcoins is estimated to be around $140 billion. These Bitcoins will likely stay trapped indefinitely, which affects the total supply of Bitcoins in circulation.

The next time someone asks you how many Bitcoins there are in circulation, the simple answer is 18.77 million — minus any Bitcoins trapped in inaccessible wallets.

The Final Figure

Even if there were no trapped Bitcoins, it’s theoretically impossible to reach the figure of 21 million once all Bitcoins have been mined. In reality, the final figure will be very close to the Bitcoin supply cap. This is because the Bitcoin supply is never expressed in exact terms. Instead, the code Bitcoin uses rounds decimal points to the closest integer. As a result, a supply of 6.2589 Bitcoins is represented by 6 Bitcoins.

Bitcoins are split into smaller units, known as satoshis. One satoshi constitutes one 1/100 millionth of a Bitcoin. Due to these smaller units — and the rounding off of figures — experts suggest the Bitcoin supply cap will be limited to 20,999,999 instead of 21 million Bitcoins.

Is the Amount of Bitcoin Fixed?

Total Bitcoin supply and the maximum number of Bitcoins up for mining are fixed — unless the stakeholders decide to do something about it. When Satoshi Nakamoto invented the virtual currency, he did it as an open-source project. For those worried about what happens when all Bitcoins are mined and the impact it could have, if stakeholders decide to change the code and increase the Bitcoin limit, it’s possible if the majority agrees. Despite the incentive to do so, the potential impact of such a change is highly debatable and controversial.

Incentive To Increase Total Bitcoin Supply

Bitcoin mining is popular because there’s a huge incentive for miners who can successfully mine the maximum amount of Bitcoin for their own gain. The incentive is paid in block rewards, which is a fixed number of Bitcoins distributed to miners. Besides receiving Bitcoin, miners also receive a part of the transaction fees associated with a block.

When the currency was launched, the reward was 50 Bitcoins for confirming a block of transactions. Now, after three halvings, miners receive 6.25 Bitcoins for confirming a block. Despite the reduction in reward, the higher value of each Bitcoin makes up for the halving effect. Transaction fees have also increased as a result of Bitcoin going mainstream.

There is no doubt that getting block rewards is a major incentive for miners. This monetary incentive not only keeps miners interested in mining, but also helps the entire ecosystem thrive. Under these circumstances, it makes perfect sense to ask what may happen when all of the Bitcoins have been mined.

Some experts believe that incentive isn’t an issue at all — because the transaction fees, which make up only 6% of the existing revenue for miners, will increase substantially, making up for the loss of block rewards. Still, this isn’t a satisfying answer for many stakeholders who are actively engaged in the Bitcoin industry. They still want to know what will happen when all 21 million Bitcoins have been mined, and if there’s something they can do about how many Bitcoins there will be in the future.

Changing the Bitcoin Supply Cap

It’s theoretically possible to change the total Bitcoin supply by altering the underlying code. Since Bitcoin itself is software, experts agree that it can be changed. To do it will require developers, stakeholders and the community at large to agree to alter the code. If an agreement were to be reached, the developers would write a code to integrate those changes in the Bitcoin Core.

For everything to work properly, the next step would be to ensure that all nodes on the Bitcoin network accept the changes — or are forced off the network. However, getting every node to accept the changes is no trivial task, since the Bitcoin platform was primarily designed as a stand-alone system that requires no changes. At this stage, the developers would need to deal with a hard fork. A hard fork is a consensus change that makes a previously invalid behavior valid. In the perfect scenario, all the nodes would be upgraded to accept the proposed changes.

Another scenario would have only some Bitcoin users favoring the existing 21 million Bitcoin limit. In this situation, miners and nodes who didn’t accept the change would continue to operate on the existing Bitcoin platform. These dissidents would likely compete with the new Bitcoin platform to capture market share.

What Happens When All Bitcoins Are Mined: The Impact on Stakeholders

At this time, no one can accurately predict what will happen when all available Bitcoins have been mined. Irrespective of any future efforts to change the underlying Bitcoin Core, experts continue to speculate on the future once the maximum limit is reached.

Several analysts favor the idea of using higher transaction fees to compensate for the absence of block rewards. New technologies will likely help to cut the cost of mining, which will eventually result in more profit for miners. Another theory suggests that Bitcoin platforms will only be used for large transactions of very high value, which will offer sufficient revenue to keep stakeholders satisfied. There are other theories as well which speculate about proof of stake and mining cartels.

From a stakeholder’s perspective, the following is a brief overview of what will happen when all Bitcoins are mined.

Miners

Miners need some kind of incentive to keep them interested in Bitcoins. One way to solve the Bitcoin limit is to change the underlying code and release more than 21 million Bitcoins.

If the current limit of 21 million isn’t breached, one of the existing scenarios will need to occur: higher transaction fees and reduced operational costs should be enough to keep things rolling; or, at the opposite end of the spectrum, miners may form cartels to control the supply and demand of Bitcoins, as practiced in oil production and in diamond mining industries.

Retail Investors and HODLers

As Bitcoin mining nears its limit, the value of Bitcoin is expected to rise. Assuming that Bitcoin remains popular, the limited supply and investment value will tempt people to use Bitcoin as an investment commodity rather than for transactional use.

The price graph of Bitcoin favors this extrapolation because the price of Bitcoin has consistently risen, despite the decrease in reward per block. HODLers and retail investors will hoard Bitcoins in their wallets instead of releasing them. These actions will further decrease the supply and keep Bitcoin’s value high.

Institutional Investors

A growing number of companies are eager to test the crypto waters. Already, Tesla, Square, Morgan Stanley and many other brands have long-term plans to adopt crypto. If the popularity of cryptocurrencies continues unabated, the interest is likely to attract more institutional investors who will be ready to take first-mover advantage.

According to Philip Gradwell, Chief Economist at Chainalysis, institutional investors are treating Bitcoin as digital gold. Due to Bitcoin’s mining limit, scarcity and potential price increase, institutional investors will use virtual currency as a hedge against inflation, just like they’ve used precious metals in the past.

Governments

Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies have proven to be a double-edged sword for governments around the world. While many countries don’t accept Bitcoin as legal tender, they’re keenly watching the impact of Bitcoin on the world’s economy. As of now, El Salvador is the first country to legally adopt Bitcoin, but more countries are likely to follow suit.

Instead of the take-it-or-leave-it approach, policymakers will probably favor a middle ground. Governments will adopt Bitcoin — but they’ll try to regulate every aspect of its operations. Rather than waiting to find an answer to what happens when all Bitcoins have been mined, there’s a strong possibility that individual governments, including the U.S., will create their own versions of digital currencies to compete with Bitcoin.

The Bottom Line

Given the popularity of Bitcoin, we can safely assume that it will continue to attract stakeholders even when the total Bitcoin supply is reached. Reaching the maximum number of Bitcoins won’t create a doomsday scenario unless Bitcoin loses its demand and traction. In a likely scenario, the Bitcoin ecosystem will continue to adapt to the changing patterns in the global economy, giving it a stable outlook for the future.

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