DP13506 Beyond the doomsday economics of "proof-of-work" in cryptocurrencies

Author(s): Raphael Auer
Publication Date: February 2019
Keyword(s): Bitcoin, blockchain, cryptocurrencies, Digital Currencies, distributed ledger technology, ethereum, Finance, money, proof-of-stake, Proof-of-Work
JEL(s): D20, D40, E42, E51, F31, G12, G28, G32, G38, L10, L50
Programme Areas: Financial Economics, International Macroeconomics and Finance, Monetary Economics and Fluctuations
Link to this Page: cepr.org/active/publications/discussion_papers/dp.php?dpno=13506

This paper discusses the economics of how Bitcoin achieves data immutability, and thus payment finality, via costly computations, ie "proof-of-work". Further, it explores what the future might hold for cryptocurrencies modelled on this type of consensus algorithm. The conclusions are, first, that Bitcoin counterfeiting via "double-spending" attacks is inherently profitable, making payment finality based on proof-of-work extremely expensive. Second, the transaction market cannot generate an adequate level of "mining" income via fees as users free-ride on the fees of other transactions in a block and in the subsequent blockchain. Instead, newly minted bitcoins, known as block rewards, have made up the bulk of mining income to date. Looking ahead, these two limitations imply that liquidity is set to fall dramatically as these block rewards are phased out. Simple calculations suggest that once block rewards are zero, it could take months before a Bitcoin payment is final, unless new technologies are deployed to speed up payment finality. Second-layer solutions such as the Lightning Network might help, but the only fundamental remedy would be to depart from proof-of-work, which would probably require some form of social coordination or institutionalisation.