Looking at the percentage of coins held by the team for each of the top 20 cryptocurrencies – about 22% on average
One of the big things that I like to consider when looking at a cryptocurrency project is how much of the supply is owned or somehow controlled by a central entity. Usually this is something like the dev team, foundation, or company behind the project, and they give themselves some of the coins at the launch in order to help fund more development, advertising, etc. (or sometimes just to make themselves rich). Personally I think this is often fine, since if they create something really useful then maybe they deserve to make a bit of money off it, and it can help them to expand the project. At some point, though, too much control of the supply by one central entity can be dangerous to the stability of a network and potentially the price if they decide to cash out and abandon the project. This can be a concern especially for something whose main feature making it more interesting as a cryptocurrency than a centralized database is its claimed decentralized structure. So I decided to look into the top 20 cryptocurrencies and make a list of how much is controlled by some sort of central entity.
For the purposes of this list, I only considered coins that were minted out of nothing in order to be given to the people behind the project. I’m also looking at current values rather than the values at launch since this seems more useful. This is partially because it seems like a less accurate measure of centralization to measure coins that were obtained by the team in a way that anyone else could get them too, and also because it’s pretty hard to tell how much a team might have bought/mined/staked for a lot of coins. That means, for example, I don’t count the coins mined by Satoshi Nakamoto – while it is likely that they mined a lot of coins when Bitcoin was new, they did so on a public network where everyone was free to compete for those coins themselves, exchanging their hashpower for bitcoin. There are also several projects where it’s hard to find current values, so some of these numbers might be old or somewhat inaccurate. If anyone has better data let me know in the comments.
List, ranked by market cap:
1) BTC – 0% – every coin was mined on a public, permissionless blockchain, and even though Satoshi likely mined much of the supply it was done on a competitive market rather than being given to them just for being the creator. The 50 coins from the genesis block, the only one that had to be mined by the creator, cannot be moved.
2) ETH – unclear, but most likely under 5% – at launch, about 6m ether were given to the foundation and another 6m to early contributors, the largest being Vitalik Buterin. Since then, the foundation’s (public) holdings have been reduced to about 430k. It’s hard to know exactly what the early contributors have done with their coins, but it seems unlikely that they all hedl this long with the opportunity to cash out tens of millions.
3) BNB – as an exchange coin, this one is a bit different from the others. While it can be used on (at least somewhat) decentralized networks, its main value comes from its reliance on a centralized exchange. Initially, the supply allocated 40% to Binance, 10% to angel investors, and 50% to a public sale. Since then, Binance has been buying back and burning coins, some from the initial allocation to the Binance team, reducing the total supply. They plan to continue burning coins until the supply goes down to 100m coins, but with the current supply still above that it seems like Binance still owns a large portion of the coins, though I couldn’t find an exact number.
4) USDT – this one is a stablecoin designed to be a sort of bridge between fiat money and crypto, so by design it’s fully centralized, giving the company the ability to mint and freeze any tokens at will. Most other stablecoins work the same way, though some like DAI use oracles instead of a central company like tether (still referencing centralized services though).
5) XRP – 12% of circulating supply, but 54% including escrow – Ripple holds about 6b XRP that they can send freely, and another 1b is released monthly from the 48b in escrow.
6) DOGE – 0% – like Bitcoin, Dogecoin had no premine or other allocation of coins to its creators, with all coins being mined on the public network. One address does hold about 28% of the supply though, and while that wallet isn’t tied to the creators, it could be a similar concern.
7) ADA – up to 16% – initially, about 5b ADA were distributed to IOHK, the Cardano foundation, and Emurgo, and the rest were sold. The foundation appears to still have the about 600m that it received initially, but I can’t find any recent information about the others. Their coins moved between wallets several times it looks like, and I’m not sure who owns the wallets they ended up in.
8) DOT – 30% – there doesn’t seem to be much easily available information about this one. I was able to find on icodrops an image showing that the foundation was given 30% of the total supply, while the rest was sold before launch. It looks like it came from the website but I can’t find any updates since this initial distribution.
9) UNI – 40% – this is split mainly between the investors and the team, with a small amount going to advisors. The initial billion coins get released over 4 years, and then 2% inflation makes their percentage of the supply decrease over time.
10) LTC – 0% – like Bitcoin and Dogecoin, Litecoin had no premine or other allocation of coins to its creators, with all coins being mined on the public network.
11) BCH – 0% – Coming from the same genesis block as BTC and building off of the same chain until 2017, Bitcoin Cash also had no coins distributed to any central entity. Note that this isn’t necessarily true for all coins created from a fork off another chain – Bitcoin Gold, for example, had a large premine. 12) LINK – 43% – the team owns about 280m coins of the 1b total, but 350m are held as rewards for node operators, with these coins also technically currently being controlled by the team. The 28% is the team’s allocated supply out of their coins plus the circulating coins, ignoring the node operator rewards.
13) VET – 24% – this one was one of the easiest ones to find good data on the current allocation of coins, which they published in their financial executive report. The foundation holds about 24% of the total supply, though they control a higher percentage of the liquid supply since about 20% is in soft lockup (including 2b additional team coins).
14) SOL – 18% – these coins are split between the team and the foundation, with the team’s coins increasing by another 5% of the total supply over the next couple of years.
15) USDC – this is another centralized stablecoin, so it is similar to tether in that coins can theoretically be minted or frozen at will by central entities.
16) XLM – 47% – the foundation holds a large portion of the currently available supply at around 47%, which is allocated for various parts of the project. In addition, another 3b coins (6% of the total supply) are released from escrow each of the next two years.
17) FIL – 20% – Protocol Labs, the team and contributors, and the foundation control 20% of the total supply. Most coins have not been released yet, but are released over several years, so right now the current supply is much lower than the total supply (about 68m coins circulating with a total supply of 2b).
18) THETA – 58% – the team, advisors, partners, and Theta Labs received a majority of the coins at about 58%, with the greatest amount being held by Theta Labs at 36% of the total supply.
19) WBTC – this is like a stablecoin but instead of being backed by fiat money, it’s a token backed by BTC. Like centralized stablecoins, it can be minted or frozen by the operators, giving them control over the whole supply.
20) TRX – 33% – Initially, the foundation was allocated 34% of the total supply. Their public addresses now hold closer to 33%, and the foundation does not say what it does with its funds from sales or the coins moved out of foundation TRX wallets.
Based on these best-estimate values for individual projects (excluding BNB, USDT, USDC, and WBTC), the mean is about 22% of coins are held by a central entity. 4 of these coins stand out at 0% – these are all PoW coins, which can be launched from a supply of 0 as new coins can be created without needing any existing coins, unlike with PoS. ETH is also (for now) PoW, but unlike BTC, DOGE, LTC, and BCH it launched from a token sale with a percentage of the coins allocated to the foundation and contributors.
Conclusion: Foundations/teams/contributors/advisors/investors/whatever control a large portion of the supply of many of the top 20 coins. Maybe this is a risk, who knows? It apparently hasn’t stopped them from getting this far.
Sources: lots of coin websites, some medium articles, a bunch of Reddit posts, Binance research, and various other crypto news sites