Crypto Die-Hards Built a $90 Billion Wall Street on the Internet

A collection of bitcoin, litecoin and ethereum tokens sit in this arranged photograph. (Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg)

Crypto Die-Hards Built a $90 Billion Wall Street on the Internet

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Money manager Vladimir Vishnevskiy can earn a negative interest rate for holding a European government bond. Or he can pocket the annual equivalent of a 20% yield for locking money up in one of the wilder corners of the crypto market, known as decentralized finance, or DeFi.

He decided to go for the 20%. “You can’t get those yields in the traditional space,” says the co-founder of Swiss-based St. Gotthard Fund Management, which runs a portfolio designed to squeeze income out of crypto assets. The strategy is so new that even Wall Street pros may have trouble wrapping their heads around it. Take what you might know about Bitcoin—that it’s a digital currency that exists only on an online ledger governed by computer code. Now make it even more mind-bending, and imagine the code isn’t just recording transactions. It’s running lending platforms, insurers and financial markets with little human intermediation. That’s DeFi.

Traders like Vishnevskiy can collect yields by committing in the form of crypto tokens the capital that’s needed to make these disembodied and largely unregulated financial institutions run. At the peak last month, investors put in as much as $86 billion into various DeFi programs, compared with just under $1 billion a year ago, DeFi Pulse data show.

It’s a young, volatile, and hack-prone system. (One of the first decentralized projects, a fund called the DAO, was the victim of a spectacular $55 million theft by someone taking advantage of a flaw in its code to siphon off funds.) And for now, it’s mostly a crypto world built for the crypto universe. The decentralized lenders are largely taking crypto deposits to make loans to people looking for leverage on crypto bets; the decentralized exchanges are used for trading crypto coins; the decentralized insurers cover crypto hacks.

The big yields investors can earn are denominated not in dollars or euros but in often-obscure tokens. Critics of DeFi say some projects can resemble a Ponzi scheme: Early investors depend on others piling into tokens that still have limited real-world utility. If returns are high, it’s largely because of investors’ voracious appetite for more digital assets. And since DeFi projects don’t need to live in any physical location, they’re difficult to regulate, making the space vulnerable to scams and money laundering schemes. Still, DeFi’s advocates think the technology has the power to open up markets and build new kinds of financial products.

To see how a DeFi program works, look at SushiSwap, a decentralized cryptocurrency exchange that started last year. It’s based on the code of another DeFi exchange called Uniswap. Like any exchange—from better-known crypto trading apps such as Coinbase to stock markets like Nasdaq—SushiSwap depends on liquidity, or the ability to make sure buyers can find the tokens they want and sellers can get a price they think is fair. To do that in a decentralized way, SushiSwap creates liquidity pools that pair any two coins that traders might want to swap—for example, Ethereum, the second-most-popular cryptocurrency and DeFi’s backbone, and the exchange’s own token, Sushi.

Investors like Vishnevskiy buy both tokens and then temporarily lock them into the pool, where they’re available to traders. An algorithm adjusts prices of both tokens to reflect relative changes in demand. The exchange also charges a fee for trading. When Vishnevskiy gets his tokens back, he also gets a portion of the fees generated from transactions made in the pool, as well as free additional Sushi tokens. (The added Sushi tokens can be earned on other trading pairs, not only those involving Sushi.) That, the exchange’s software surmises, amounts to an annualized 20% yield.

Other DeFi protocols may pay yields to people who make their crypto available for someone else to borrow. For example, traders might want to borrow stablecoins—tokens whose value is linked to that of a traditional currency such as the dollar—to buy more Bitcoin on platforms that don’t take traditional currencies.

If that sounds complicated, it is. Yields in DeFi are mostly projected from recent market trends and could drop quickly. Some investors who call themselves yield farmers are constantly moving their money trying to generate income, but crypto transaction costs called “gas” fees can eat up profits. Moreover, the cryptocurrencies these yields get paid in can fluctuate wildly in value. When Bitcoin slid as much as 10% on one recent day, popular DeFi coins such as Uniswap’s fell almost 20%.

Other risks that come with any cryptocurrency still apply: Regulatory scrutiny will probably grow, which might shut down or hamper some projects and blow up the value of associated tokens. Founders of DeFi projects who’ve hoarded the coins created to run them could suddenly cash out, causing prices to drop. SushiSwap’s pseudonymous creator, Chef Nomi, sold tokens worth roughly $13 million in September before reversing course amid community outrage.

The history of crypto is filled with cautionary tales about investments riding a wave of hype and then falling apart. Around 2018, so-called initial coin offerings raised billions of dollars for projects, most of which turned out to be duds. DeFi converts say the difference now is that applications such as exchanges and lenders are generating revenue, even if just from crypto speculation. Uniswap, which announces its user statistics in real time, had trading volume of $813 million in one recent 24-hour period, generating $1.8 million in fees for those staking their tokens in its liquidity pool.

What about the value of the tokens many DeFi projects give out? These coins aren’t exactly equity and don’t always confer any direct claim to profits. Often they give holders voting rights on the future of the project; investors may be hoping that as the protocols they’re associated with grow in popularity, so will the coins. But some DeFi platforms might not be as successful as they seem. Aleksander Kloda, who co-manages a DeFi fund at Nickel Digital Asset Management, says participation may be driven less by the value of a service than by the promise of free tokens. “In the short term, they can really make the picture a lot more difficult to read,” he says. “The logic is not quite correct if the volumes are only there because of the additional motivation the protocol gives you to participate.” As an investor, he tries to identify projects that have built up sustainable volume even without tantalizing yields.

Advocates of DeFi say the idea is still in its infancy, and it could eventually broaden its uses and reach into more traditional areas of finance. Their dream is a financial system run on the internet that doesn’t involve a credit officer at a JPMorgan branch, or a Citadel Securities investing in high-frequency infrastructure to keep stock trading liquid.

But Elaine Ou, a blockchain engineer at Global Financial Access, argues there’s nothing wrong with DeFi being used only for crypto trading, either. “Look at Vegas and Macau—part of the reason they’re so valuable is that they allow you to do what other jurisdictions have banned,” says Ou, who also writes for Bloomberg Opinion. “It is possible to build an entire industry up around speculation.”
 
Read next: One Crypto Exchange Is Going to Extreme Lengths on Cybersecurity

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