Bitcoin Death Spiral, Explained (& No, it’s Not Going to Happen)

A version of this article first appeared in our exclusive newsletter. If you’d like Block Explorer’s cutting-edge analysis before it hits our website, sign up now.

Sigh.

Another day, another slew of negative, fear-inducing, factually-inaccurate cryptocurrency reporting in the mainstream media.

The focus of my wrath is this article in Market Watch, titled Bitcoin is Close to Becoming Worthless.

Written by a professor of finance, it carries some weight.

But it’s also wrong on many technical levels.

The author’s basic claim is this:

With the price of bitcoin dropping, bitcoin mining has now become unprofitable.

If mining produces no profits, he says, miners will abandon the network. It will grind to a halt and bitcoin will become worthless. This phenomenon is known as the “bitcoin death spiral.”

Here’s why he’s wrong…

It’s true that bitcoin mining is currently unprofitable (we reported as much recently). However, the Bitcoin system is designed to adapt and morph to account for this.

It does so by altering the “difficulty” of mining.

This gets a little technical but bear with me.

Bitcoin Mining Background

In very simple terms, bitcoin miners process transactions in “blocks” by using extensive computer power.

That computer power directed towards the Bitcoin network is known as hash power. When lots of miners are working on the network, the hash rate goes up.

One Block Every Ten Minutes

The system is designed to produce one block every ten minutes.

Everything else being equal, if miners throw more computer power at the network, blocks will be produced faster. 

Too fast, actually. Miners get a reward (in bitcoin) for every block they produce. If blocks are produced too quickly, too much bitcoin is released.

That’s where the self-adjusting algorithm comes in.

When hash power is high, the algorithm automatically adjusts to make it more difficult to mine a block, slowing down production to meet the ten-minute block target.

The Problem Today

The problem we face currently is that miners are leaving the network. Some mining facilities are closing and throwing away equipment.

Hash power on the network is now lower, but the difficulty remains somewhat high.

In other words, the remaining miners have to work incredibly hard (using much more computer power) to produce the same block – hence the lack of profitability.

The “Difficulty” Just Readjusted

But it works both ways. With fewer miners contributing hash power, the algorithm will automatically adjust to make it easier and ultimately return to profitability.

That readjustment happened this week, with Bitcoin’s difficulty dropping 15%. 

Every Two Weeks

Bitcoin’s difficulty is set to re-adjust after every 2016 blocks (roughly every two weeks).

The “death spiral” is only possible if block production slows down so much that we don’t make it to the next difficulty adjustment.

Worst Case Scenario

If that reality plays out, there’s another option.

Bitcoin could execute a “hard fork” and form a new blockchain where the difficulty is lower.

Still confused? This tweet from Nic Carter sums it up quite neatly.

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As blockchain expert Andreas Antonopoulos explains: “The chances of [a death spiral] actually happening are pretty low. The chances of it happening and nobody doing anything to fix it is near zero.”

So, as usual, the mainstream and financial media are blowing things out of proportion without explaining the full picture or technical background of bitcoin. 

Intrigued? Here are some more resources:

Proof of Work Explained: How Cryptocurrencies Keep Block Production in Check (Block Explorer)

Bitcoin Difficulty Targeting and the “Death Spiral” (Andreas Antonopoulos video)

A version of this article first appeared in our exclusive newsletter. If you’d like Block Explorer’s cutting-edge analysis before it hits our website, sign up now.

Ben Brown

Editor, Block Explorer News

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