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What the third bitcoin halving means for crypto investors

On Monday evening, the bitcoin Halving will arrive for the third time in bitcoin’s history. It last happened in July 2016, and before that in November 2012.

Bitcoin “miners” receive a small reward in bitcoin every time their machines verify “blocks” (bundles of bitcoin transaction data) to the bitcoin blockchain. This is the only way new bitcoins are created. Every four years, that reward is cut in half in order to slow the creation of new bitcoin; that event is called the Halving. (Some cryptocurrency geeks prefer to call it the Halvening.)

When bitcoin first began trading in January 2009 with the first block of transactions verified on the blockchain (the “genesis block”), the reward for miners was 50 BTC. That was reduced to 25 BTC in 2012, then 12.5 BTC in 2016. After this third Halving, miners will receive a reward of 6.25 BTC per block, roughly $55,000 at the current bitcoin price.

Because the result of the Halving is that mining bitcoin becomes half as profitable, bitcoin transaction fees have spiked over the past two months. And since the Halving slows the supply of new bitcoin being created, the event should juice the demand for bitcoin—in theory.

A lady wearing a protective mask walks her dog in front of a Bitcoin exchange shop in Krakow's city center.  On Saturday, April 18, 2020, in Krakow, Poland. (Photo by Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
A lady wearing a protective mask walks her dog in front of a Bitcoin exchange shop in Krakow, Poland, on April 18, 2020. (Photo by Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Will the Halving boost the price?

If you’ve bought bitcoin as an investment, your first question about the Halving is what it will do to the price. Historically, the answer has been: not much immediately, then a big spike in the months that follow.

After the 2012 Halving, the bitcoin price saw a slow increase in the weeks that followed, cheered on by the early believers, and then went on a massive ride. One year later, it had soared from $2 to $1,031, a 51,000% increase. At the time of the 2016 Halving, bitcoin was at $650, and one year later, it was around $2,518, a 287% jump.

But history may not be any indication this time.

“I think people would be remiss to assume there will be any kind of immediate price reaction because of the Halving,” says Michael Sonnenshein, managing director of Grayscale Investments, a crypto investment firm owned by Digital Currency Group. “The factors surrounding bitcoin today are very different from the past two Halvings, based on the maturity and evolution of the ecosystem in the last four years. Institutional investment, regulatory clarity, futures contracts—there’s so much that has developed and solidified around the ecosystem between these events.”

Sonnenshein, who has worked in crypto for seven years, says nothing would surprise him, price-wise, in the wake of the third Halving.

Bitcoin has fared well during coronavirus quarantine. In the first two weeks of March, when coronavirus headlines sent stocks reeling, bitcoin crashed along with everything else. But since March 16, bitcoin has risen 84% while the S&P 500 is up just 24%. Bitcoin is now up 22% in 2020.

Bitcoin price and S&P 500 from March 16 through May 8, 2020.
Bitcoin price and S&P 500 from March 16 through May 8, 2020.

An opportunity for new investors?

The bitcoin Halving also carries a more abstract significance: it is an educational moment to the uninitiated on how bitcoin works, and perhaps an occasion for new investors to jump in.

Sonnenshein sees the event as a reminder of bitcoin’s scarcity, and thus its appeal as an investment. (Last year, Grayscale launched a national TV ad campaign that encouraged young investors to drop gold for bitcoin.) “It highlights one of the most important aspects around bitcoin, which is the fact that its supply is not only scarce, it’s tightening,” he says. “And it’s happening at a time when government central banks are expanding their balance sheets in an aggressive fashion.”

Quantitative tightening is not quite the perfect analogy for the Halving. As finance blogger Frances Coppola tweeted over the weekend, “QT actually reduces the quantity of dollars in circulation. The halvening merely reduces the rate at which bitcoin supply is increasing.”

Sonnenshein has an additional analogy he likes: “We’re taking the faucet, which releases new bitcoin from the faucet every day, and reducing the water pressure of the faucet by half.”

The next few weeks and months will tell whether this third Halving will make bitcoin more or less appealing to investors.

Daniel Roberts is an editor-at-large at Yahoo Finance and closely covers bitcoin and blockchain. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.

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