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Decentralized finance (DeFi) is a concept that has received a lot of attention since the so-called DeFi Summer of 2020 because its usage, often measured in total value locked (TVL), has risen dramatically since that time. In the last year alone, TVL rose by over 240% to a current $209 billion in “value locked” within DeFi projects, according to DefiLlama. Not only has it become interesting for investors to get into promising DeFi projects through their tokens (hoping for capital gains), but also to use these platforms to generate a regular and steady income through various activities. And, it’s been even more attractive in bearish markets.
It is exactly this appeal of solid risk-free returns uncorrelated to crypto market movements that lures many investors out on to the thin ice. Remember: There is no such thing as a free lunch. In this article, we will break down the concept of DeFi and go deep into its ecosystem, strategies and the risks all of which are relevant for private and professional investors considering allocating capital to this space.
From TradFi to DeFi
Let’s start at the beginning by shedding some light on the transition (or disruption) from traditional finance, or TradFi, to DeFi. Explained simply, DeFi sets out to disintermediate processes traditionally run by banks and financial institutions like borrowing, lending and market making by cutting out the middleman. It allows investors to directly interact with each other on a peer-to-peer (P2P) basis by providing loans or liquidity for trading and assume those roles/functions in return for generating fees, albeit while also carrying the risks. “The disruption of the banking sector, which we have seen in the recent years driven by FinTech players, has now escalated to the next level with DeFi laying the groundwork for a peer-to-peer ecosystem” states serial tech entrepreneur and AltAlpha Digital crypto hedge fund co-founder Marc Bernegger. We will explore the DeFi business model and ways to participate in it shortly.
Common factors used to classify the TradFi space include that it is trust based, as you need to trust your bank as the sole counterparty, large barriers remain for entering the system, as many emerging nations still have populations where 50-70% are still unbanked, and they are often slow, expensive and not very customer friendly. What can you expect if they are only open Monday-Friday, from 9:00 am to 11:00 am and 2:00 pm to 4:00 pm? This stands in strong contrast to the DeFi world built on code that removes the need for trusted intermediaries; the agreed-upon terms are recorded on and executed through blockchain mechanisms. Accessibility has drastically increased with the spread of internet coverage and cheap smartphones. The digital assets space can be accessed 24/7/365, with services and global network coverage being constantly expanded and improved.
While it might all sound wonderful, there is still a long way to go. The topic remains complex and hard to grasp for many. User interfaces and processes still have plenty of room for improvement and simplification, fees can vary, resulting in unreasonably high charges for smaller transaction amounts, DeFi hacks have been on the rise and being your “own bank” welcomes an entire slew of operational challenges and risks.
The elements involved in DeFi
Looking at DeFi as a whole, much like building a house, you have various layers that come together to form a new digital service offering.
Using the house as our example, the first layer, the underlying blockchain technology which could be Ethereum or Solana (layer-1 protocols), is like our basement or cellar. Depending on which blockchain is used, you will need to make certain trade-offs. This is known as the blockchain trilemma, a phrase coined by Ethereum co-founder Vitalik Buterin.
Think of a triangle with security, scalability and decentralization at each of the corners. You can only optimize two corners while making a compromise on the third corner. Putting this into a practical context, Marius Ciubotariu, founder of the Hubble Protocol, states:
“Both Solana and Ethereum do not compromise on security, but as opposed to Ethereum, where almost everybody with a laptop can run a node, Solana nodes are much more demanding. However, in a world governed by Moore’s law, this doesn’t seem to be much of a trade-off anymore.”
He continues: “Solana, as a blockchain, was designed for high frequency (financial) activity. Everything in Solana’s design is geared towards performance, choosing to prioritize speed over cost.” This gives you more color for the nuanced views developers and investors must take when deciding for an ecosystem. To tackle these challenges, developers are working on either creating new “base layer” blockchains to solve these constraints, which you see with Polkadot and their layer-0 approach or by introducing layer-2 scaling solutions on top of layer-1 blockchains like with Ethereum using zk-Rollups smart contracts for cost reduction.
Then, on top of our basement, we have our walls, which are the respective protocols, also known as decentralized applications, or DApps, that offer their service as decentralized exchanges (DEXs) such as Curve or Uniswap, lending protocols like Aave or Maker, derivatives liquidity protocols like Synthetix and more. A space that is constantly growing and developing.
You have to put a roof on your walls, and for that, we have the “pools.” When using one of the DApp services like a lending protocol, you can choose which token you want to provide. For example, when using the service of Aave, you can decide to only provide a loan for USD Coin (USDC) stablecoins. Or, on UniSwap, you can act only as a liquidity provider for Ether (ETH) and USDC trading pools. Think of when going to a bank and saying you want to borrow money or trade stocks, you also have to say in which currency you wish to borrow or which stock you want to buy in which reference currency. We’ll cover these activities in more detail in the next section.
Finally, to plant a flag at the top of your roof, you also have the aggregators such as wallets like MetaMask, Trezor and Ledger, DEXs like Thorchain and 1inch, or Centralized Exchanges such as Kraken and Binance. They combine the services of the various platforms into one single entry point/user interface creating ease of access. Die-hard crypto fans will reject using centralized exchanges, as this goes against the entire point of decentralization and self-custody of your private keys, the password to your crypto wealth.
In comparing DeFi to the structure of a house, we aren’t doing so only for simplification, while, of course, omitting some nuances and details, but showing that if the foundation, or the layer-1 blockchain, has cracks, the entire house is at risk. Therefore, when doing your risk assessment, consider the stability of the entire house and not just the floor you are standing on.
How can you make money with DeFi?
Simply speaking, you can either invest in the DeFi projects/protocols by buying the respective tokens like SushiSwap (SUSHI), Aave (AAVE) or Maker (MKR) while expecting capital gains through price increase based on a superior platform offering, user and asset growth. Or, you can actually use these platforms as an “operator” and generate income from the various activities available.
You can also have your cake and eat it, too, by buying into high conviction projects and get some additional income through some of the following activities:
Staking. With staking, you are rewarded for participating in the consensus mechanism process, or how decisions are made, of a blockchain using your staked tokens like Tezos (XTZ), Polkadot (DOT) or ETH, de facto becoming a validator of the network. This is referred to as a proof-of-stake mechanism used by blockchains such as Tezos, Polkadot and soon, Ethereum 2.0 to secure transactions and the network. Notice how I use the “ticker” symbols when talking about the tokens and the platform names when referencing them as a protocol. With an increase of staked and, thereby, “locked” tokens, new concepts such as “liquid staking” have emerged, basically creating a derivative of the staked token, which then again becomes “liquid” and can be re-deployed while earning staking rewards.
Lending. Instead of receiving a loan from the bank, you can get it from a DeFi protocol, having fellow investors put up the funds or, in essence, peer-to-peer lending. In return, the investors receive part of the interest paid on the loan as their yield. Note that when you, for example, hold stocks with your bank, they are most probably lending those stocks, for which you are paying a deposit fee, to some financial institution like a hedge fund, again for a fee, which then can be used for short selling and other leveraged trades. Obviously, you don’t see any of that money.
Liquidity provision. When you buy and sell stocks on a traditional exchange, financial institutions act as intermediaries in coordinating trades, as well as providing liquidity through shares or cash. In the digital asset world, these activities have been disrupted by automated market makers (AMM) running and operating as decentralized exchanges on automated code. The missing liquidity is yet again provided by fellow investors who will receive income in the form of the fees generated by these liquidity pools. These pools consist of a variety of trading pairs such as crypto vs. crypto like BTC/ETH, crypto vs. stablecoins like DOT/Tether (USDT), or stablecoins vs. stablecoins like USDC/Terra (UST).
Yield farming. Imagine you lent money to a liquidity pool, such as SushiSwap, and started to receive your first rewards in SUSHI. You don’t want them sitting around. You could put them to work yet again through one of various opportunities and pile up more rewards. In short, yield farming is the activity of constantly putting your tokens to work — money doesn’t sleep — chasing higher and compounding yields across protocols, pools and others.
All these activities offer a respective annual percentage yield (APY) or fee share split which will vary depending on the platform like Curve or Compound, services such as staking or liquidity provision and underlying tokens like BTC or USDC used. These gains can come in the form of deposited tokens, referenced as “Supply APY,” as well as the platform’s native token, referenced as “Rewards APY.” For example, the SushiSwap protocol would give you SUSHI tokens and the Aave protocol AAVE tokens. Some of these platforms distribute governance tokens, giving owners the right to vote on the direction of the platform, such as receiving the optionality of becoming an activist investor.
What to watch out for
This could be an entire article in itself, so we’ll stick to some key highlights. First, use the house analogy to have a conscious awareness for your risk assessment across the layers and interdependency. With a focus on the protocols, or your counterparty risk, there are some specific levels you will want to review and ask critical questions on:
- Team. Is the team known or an anonymous group? What is their technical and practical background? Are there any large/well-known backers of the crypto community involved?
- Technical. Have there been any hacks, are there third-party smart contract audits available and do they have security bounty prizes posted?
- Tokenomics. Are governance tokens awarded? What is the current total value locked and how are growth numbers regarding assets and active users? Is the project run through a decentralized autonomous organization (DAO) with a community-supported model?
- Insurance. Is there a treasury to make investors “whole” again in the event of a hack? Are any insurance policies in place?
- Pools. What are the APYs — are they insanely high? — has the APY been stable, how much trading liquidity is within the pool, risk of impermanent loss, lockup periods or transaction fees?
When you actively “use” your tokens to generate income, you generally are “hot” on these protocols/exchanges and, therefore, much more vulnerable to hacks or counterparty risk. There are institutional providers, such as Copper, offering secure custody not only for buy-and-hold investors, but also for staking of tokens at a cost. These security and custody concerns are a key difference between investing in DeFi through buying tokens, which can then get tucked away into cold storage vs. operating a strategy which is constantly and actively generating income.
In conclusion, this is an incredible space: We have been in and will continue to witness a new trillion-dollar industry being built right in front of our eyes. However, some final words of caution: Watch out for the too good to be true deals/APYs, as there’s usually a catch, for the fees that can suddenly explode, diminishing returns on an active strategy making smaller investments unattractive and be careful with the general safekeeping of your assets as loss of principle is possible.
If you are new to the field, start off with some play money, testing and learning along the way. Alternatively, if you want to participate but not deal with the hassle, you can also invest in professional managers designing, execute and monitoring these strategies in an institutional setting. But, one should use the same nuanced assessment approach provided earlier in your due diligence process of selecting a manager.
This article does not contain investment advice or recommendations. Every investment and trading move involves risk, and readers should conduct their own research when making a decision.
The views, thoughts and opinions expressed here are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect or represent the views and opinions of Cointelegraph.
Marc D. Seidel started exploring blockchain and crypto back in 2016. Besides starting the crypto hedge fund AltAlpha Digital, he heads up the Alternative Investment practice of the BFI Capital Group. He previously worked at Google and Facebook, where he led the go-to-market ads strategy for the Alpine region. He founded three companies, one each in the health care, law digitalization and sustainability ecommerce sector.