Despite cryptocurrency’s decentralized ideals, a select few hold vast amounts of Bitcoin, wielding outsized influence. Who owns the most Bitcoin, and how do these whales sway the market?
It has been 15 years since the invention of Bitcoin (BTC), the cryptocurrency that kicked off what is now a multibillion-dollar digital asset industry. In that time, the coin has become one of the largest peer-to-peer (P2P) networks in terms of the total number of users.
However, there have been concerns regarding Bitcoin’s centralized distribution, which seems counterintuitive to its original purpose.
It is becoming increasingly clear that a small number of companies and individuals control the vast majority of Bitcoin’s current supply. These entities are often called “whales,” who, because of their massive holdings, can cause significant ripples across the BTC market.
These whales often command attention from other market participants due to their outsized trading activity and capacity to influence prices.
In this article, we’ll look at who these people and organizations are and what their ownership of such large chunks of BTC means for the crypto market.
Overview of Bitcoin’s ownership distribution
Bitcoin’s pseudonymous creator, Satoshi Nakamoto, had the idea for a decentralized P2P payment system based on a digital currency that was universally accessible for purchase, storage, and use.
Importantly, Satoshi hoped to erase the influence of governments and traditional financial institutions in his new monetary system.
But while Satoshi’s ideals certainly help to explain Bitcoin’s increasing popularity and value, there is a nagging worry that the system is becoming more centralized as its ownership becomes concentrated in only a few hands.
The general feeling is that the greater the concentration of BTC’s supply, the fewer coins will be available to the general public, especially given that there will only ever be 21 million Bitcoins in circulation.
Data from BitInfoCharts shows that of the 48,766,860 BTC addresses currently in existence, the vast majority, about 47,775,437, hold 1 BTC or less. Another 1,013,080 hold between 1 and 1000 BTC, while 2,017 have between a thousand and a million Bitcoin in their possession.
The exact cutoff for how much BTC an address should hold to be considered a whale is still subjective. But if we go by the general consensus of at least $10 million worth of BTC, then from BitInfoCharts’ database and the current dollar value of Bitcoin, there should be about 5,267 addresses that qualify as whales.
However, as can be seen in the chart above, there’s an even more rarified level of BTC whales, numbering 108, who hold between 10,000 and 660,000 BTC each. This is the group we’ll take a closer look at.
Biggest individual Bitcoin holders
Although the true identities of the owners of most Bitcoin wallets remain anonymous, it has not prevented the media from speculating on who owns how much BTC. These reports often rely on the personal admissions of certain crypto industry players and data gleaned from on-chain transactions attributed to organizations or individuals.
Some of the biggest holders of Bitcoin, as reported by the media, are:
One of the biggest speculated holders of BTC is its mysterious creator, Satoshi Nakamoto. Despite the uncertainty surrounding Nakamoto’s identity, it is believed they mined no less than 22,000 blocks, each with a 50 BTC reward. It would put the total number of coins earned by Satoshi at approximately 1.1 million.
Legend also has it that Satoshi always used a different wallet to store coins earned from a particular block; that’s why there isn’t a single BTC wallet with a million coins. However, since Satoshi disappeared from the public eye, it is unclear who, if anyone, has access to this massive hoard and why Satoshi squirreled the coins away in the first place.
If there’s any truth to the claims about the size of Satoshi’s BTC holding, then it would be worth an eye-watering $28.7 billion, going by Bitcoin’s price at the time of this writing.
American venture capitalist and entrepreneur Tim Draper is a known supporter and hodler of Bitcoin.
According to reports, Draper initially bought 40,000 Bitcoin from the Japanese crypto exchange Mt. Gox. However, in February 2014, Mt. Gox suffered a major security breach, leading to the loss of more than 650,000 Bitcoin. Draper’s entire BTC holdings were allegedly part of the coins stolen in that misadventure.
Later in the same year, the wealthy businessman purchased an additional 29,656 BTC from the now-defunct Silk Road dark web market that U.S. law enforcement had seized. If he never added or removed a single Bitcoin from that particular stash, Draper’s holding would place him at #29 on BitInfoCharts’ list of the 100 biggest Bitcoin owners.
The Winklevoss twins
Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss are also a huge part of Bitcoin lore. The brothers founded the Gemini crypto exchange in 2014 using part of a $65 million settlement from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg following allegations he had stolen the idea for the social media platform from them.
Around the time they were setting up Gemini, the twins boasted that they had bought up at least 1% of Bitcoin’s circulating supply.
In 2014, per CoinMarketCap, BTC had a circulating supply of 12,315,650. Therefore, if Tyler and Cameron’s claims were true, they should have amassed no fewer than 123,000 BTC in that year alone.
However, the 2022 crypto winter that triggered the collapse of several companies in the digital assets space and the plummeting of cryptocurrency prices reportedly caused the Winklevoss twins to lose more than 60% of their BTC wealth. As of now, reports indicate that the brothers hold upwards of 70,000 Bitcoin.
MicroStrategy co-founder and executive chairman Michael Saylor is another big Bitcoin proponent. The man, who became a multimillionaire in the late 90s after riding the dot-com bubble, once stated that he personally owned 17,732 Bitcoin.
Being so bullish on Bitcoin, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that, since that revelation, Saylor has added some more coins to his BTC trove. What makes it more plausible is that Saylor’s company, MicroStrategy, controlled more than 152,000 BTC as of July 31, following a conscious decision to adopt cryptocurrency as its primary reserve asset.
Known in crypto circles as CZ, Binance’s CEO, Changpeng Zhao, is thought to be one of the largest Bitcoin holders in the world. The Chinese-born crypto entrepreneur got into Bitcoin in 2014 after reportedly selling his apartment for $1 million. Depending on when CZ sold his property, the million dollars could have bought him anywhere between 1,230 and 3,076 BTC.
Although the exact number of Bitcoin in his possession is unknown, a December 2022 “Bloomberg Billionaires Index” report had CZ’s net worth at $13.1 billion, and given that the 46-year-old had previously stated that he owns very little fiat currency, it is safe to say that a fair chunk of that net worth could be in digital assets, most of it Bitcoin.
Public companies holding the most Bitcoin
While a sizable portion of Bitcoin is in the hands of individuals, more institutional investors have taken up the cryptocurrency. Per data from CoinGecko, 25 publicly traded companies hold 1.2% of the total Bitcoin supply, which adds up to about 233,000 coins.
The following are the institutions whose BTC holdings qualify them for whale status:
Per CoinGecko’s database, MicroStrategy holds 152,800 Bitcoin, which is about 0.728% of its circulating supply. At current prices, the coins are worth approximately $3.9 billion. The company spent an estimated $4.12 billion to buy its Bitcoin, meaning it is currently looking at about $200 million in lost value.
The company first started buying BTC in 2020, mirroring its former CEO Michael Saylor’s affinity for the cryptocurrency.
Coming a distant second in the list is Marathon Digital, a Bitcoin mining company based in Las Vegas. At last count, Marathon owned 12,964 BTC valued at about $338 million. The company occasionally sells some of its holdings, including 750 in July 2023.
Headed by CEO Mike Novogratz, Galaxy Digital Holdings is a New York-based crypto financial services company. Per CoinGecko’s data, the crypto firm holds 12,545 BTC with a market value of $327 million.
Coinbase is a publicly listed crypto exchange headed by Brian Armstrong. It holds a total of 10,766 BTC bought for a combined $207 million. Interestingly, as of November 2022, the exchange also held about 2 million BTC belonging to customers. This was revealed by the company CEO in a Twitter (now X) exchange with Binance CEO Changpeng Zhao.
Rounding off our list of publicly traded BTC whales is Elon Musk’s electric automobile manufacturer, Tesla. As of August 2023, Tesla held 10,500 Bitcoin worth a total of $336 million.
The company initially bought about $1.5 billion worth of Bitcoin in 2021 after stating it would start accepting payments in cryptocurrency. A couple of months later, Tesla sold 10% of its BTC holding as Musk reportedly sought to test whether the coin could be liquidated easily without majorly affecting the market.
In 2022, Tesla offloaded 75% of its remaining Bitcoin after it started losing value following the advent of a crypto winter that crippled the entire digital asset market. The car maker indicated that it recouped $936 million in the sale.
While below our 10,000 BTC threshold, companies like Hut 8 Mining, Block Inc., and Riot still possess sizable Bitcoin holdings. At the time of writing, Hut 8 owned 9,315 Bitcoin valued at $242 million. Block Inc., a multinational technology conglomerate founded by former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, holds 8,027 Bitcoin with a market value of $209 million.
On its part, Riot, another Bitcoin mining company, owns 7,094 coins worth an estimated $185 million.
Crypto exchanges and private institutions
Binance, Coinbase, Kraken, and Coincheck are just a few of the major crypto exchanges that hold significant amounts of Bitcoin. However, the coins in their custody often legally belong to their customers.
Regardless, the sheer volume of transactions that are run on these platforms gives them considerable influence in the crypto market. Often, when one of them moves some of its holdings from one wallet to another, it causes a stir among the crypto community and may even nudge the price of Bitcoin in either direction.
Of the top 100 BTC wallets identified by BitInfoCharts, nine belong to Binance, including the largest BTC address that holds 248,597 coins. In total, Binance’s wallets hold 607,863 Bitcoin, all valued at about $15.8 billion.
Bitfinex’s biggest identified wallet contains 178,010 BTC, and it is the second-largest Bitcoin address in the world. The exchange also owns another wallet holding 19,711 coins for a combined total of 197,721 Bitcoin, boasting a value of $5.1 billion.
The third biggest BTC holder is a mysterious address that amassed 118,300 coins in three short months. There have been speculations regarding the identity of the owner of the wallet. An X user going by the name DivXMan linked the wallet with American investment firm BlackRock, which recently applied for a spot Bitcoin exchange-traded fund (ETF) license.
Later, Arkham Intelligence, a blockchain intelligence platform, labelled the wallet as Robinhood: Jump Trading Custody.
Private companies with large Bitcoin holdings include:
Founded in July 2010 by Jed McCaleb, Mt. Gox was once the biggest Bitcoin exchange in the world, accounting for more than 70% of all transactions in the world.
However, on Feb. 24, 2014, the Shibuya-based exchange suspended all trading and filed for bankruptcy protection following the loss of more than 700,000 Bitcoin worth an estimated $473 million.
Currently, the exchange reportedly holds 141,686 BTC via a Japanese trustee. The coins are tied up in bankruptcy proceedings but are set to be offered to users who lost their assets in 2014 following approval of a civil rehabilitation plan in 2021.
Block.one is a software development firm responsible for the EOSIO network and the EOS crypto token. According to industry reports, the company holds 140,000 Bitcoin, which is about 0.7% of the circulating supply.
As part of its reserve attestation for the first quarter of 2023, Tether Holdings, the operator of the USDT stablecoin, revealed that it owned 52,670 BTC worth $1.3 billion. The coins are part of the assets used to back USDT and ensure it maintains its 1:1 ratio with the U.S. dollar.
The Tezos Foundation is a Swiss nonprofit charged with managing and funding the Tezos (XTZ) network. In 2019, the Foundation held 39,700 BTC. However, over the years, it has gradually sold the majority of its holdings and reportedly now owns only 17,500 coins. Still, that amount puts it well within the top 50 biggest wallets in the world and makes it one of the biggest private holders of BTC.
In addition to individuals, public companies, and private organizations, some governments are also known to hold Bitcoin. The stockpiles may have come from loot seized from criminals, donations from wellwishers, or a deliberate pro-Bitcoin policy.
According to reports, the U.S. government is sitting on 207,189 Bitcoin, valued at $5.4 billion. The coins mostly come from asset seizures, including those from the Colonial Pipeline hackers, the Silk Road dark web marketplace, and a criminal named Jimmy Zhong, who was associated with the marketplace.
The U.S. government seemingly had much more Bitcoin but disposed of more than 185,000 in 11 auctions between 2014 and 2023.
Also, according to CryptoQuant CEO Ki Young Ju, the Chinese government is in possession of 194,000 Bitcoin seized in the 2019 PlusToken scam.
If there is any truth in Ki’s allegations, then it makes the Chinese government a bigger BTC whale than MicroStrategy.
Recent research by Sachin Jaitly, a partner at Morgan Creek Capital, also revealed that Australia has custody of more than 26,000 Bitcoin, obtained from multiple asset seizures linked to Silk Road. Additionally, Jaitly’s research also revealed that, as of June 2023, Bhutan owned 13,104 BTC gained from its own crypto mining operations since 2020.
While not as big a player as most of the names in this article, El Salvador, which became the first country to make Bitcoin legal tender in 2021, owns a sizable stash of 2,473 coins.
In conclusion, the landscape of Bitcoin ownership is complex and somewhat paradoxical. While cryptocurrency was created to promote decentralization and provide a democratic alternative to traditional financial systems, a significant portion of its supply is heavily concentrated in the hands of a small group of individuals and organizations.
These whales have the potential to exert substantial influence over the market, which can lead to price volatility and may counteract the original purpose of Bitcoin.
As the cryptocurrency industry continues to mature, it remains to be seen how this dynamic will evolve and whether measures will be taken to further democratize Bitcoin ownership.
Ultimately, the future of Bitcoin and its influence on the broader financial market will depend on how these issues are addressed.