Bitcoin’s bull run from last year has caused even some of its biggest skeptics to soften their stance. From economists to hedge fund managers, the world is opening itself up to technology, and at the center of this movement is decentralized finance, or DeFi. While the market capitalization of all cryptocurrencies has hit $2 trillion, worth as much as Apple, it’s the promise of DeFi — a small corner of the blockchain industry today — that’s grabbing the attention of institutional investors.
As Bitcoin’s (BTC) bullish trend persists, interest-bearing crypto products have become all the rage. Some services offer up to 8% returns on Bitcoin holdings. For investors who are already expecting a rise in value, this can be incredibly useful for maintaining cash flow without selling any assets.
The three main factors solidifying institutional interest in Bitcoin are the current historically low interest rates, the inflation rate and geopolitical instability. With near-zero interest rates expected for the foreseeable future, investors are gearing up to move their funds into alternative locations for securing wealth.
The United States Federal Reserve’s 2% inflation target has incited concern in investors fearing devaluation, and with tensions between the U.S. and China on a precarious edge, portfolios denominated in U.S. dollars are becoming riskier by the day.
A market for money
Buying, storing and using cryptocurrencies securely is still quite a complex ordeal — far more involved than setting up a bank account. However, according to Larry Fink, the CEO of BlackRock — a global investment management fund with nearly $9 trillion in assets under management — Bitcoin could evolve into a global market asset and achieve new highs in the upcoming years.
In the traditional financial system, money markets are parts of the economy that issue short-term funds. They usually deal with loans for periods of a year or less, and offer services like borrowing and lending, buying and selling, with wholesale trading taking place over the counter. Money markets are composed of short-term, highly liquid assets and are part of the broader financial markets system.
Money markets are traditionally very complicated, with expensive overheads and hidden fees pushing most investors to hire a fund manager. However, their existence is paramount to operating a modern financial economy. They incentivize people to lend money in the short term and allocate capital toward productive use. This improves the overall market’s efficiency while helping financial institutions meet their goals. Basically, anyone with extra cash on hand can earn interest on deposits.
Money markets are composed of different kinds of securities, such as short-term treasuries, certificates of deposits, repurchase agreements and mutual funds, among others. These funds generally consist of shares that cost $1.
On the other hand, capital markets are dedicated to the trade of long-term debt and equity instruments, and point to the entire stock and bond market. Using a computer, anyone can purchase or sell assets in mere seconds, but companies issuing the stock do so to raise funds for more long-term operations. These stocks fluctuate, and unlike money market products, they have no expiration date.
Since money market investments are virtually risk-free, they often come with meager interest rates as well. This means that they will not produce huge gains or display substantial growth, compared with riskier assets like stocks and bonds.
DeFi vs. the world?
To hedge against currency risk, institutions have started using Bitcoin, and retail investors are following their lead. More than 60% of Bitcoin’s circulating supply hasn’t moved since 2018, and BTC is predicted to push well above $100,000 in the next 24 months.
If the current trend carries forward, investors will continue to stockpile BTC. However, while much of the supply of the world’s first cryptocurrency remains in storage, the DeFi industry is constantly producing alternative platforms for interest-bearing payments through smart contracts, which increases transparency by allowing investors to view and track on-chain funds.
The average return for DeFi products is also much higher than in traditional money markets, with some platforms even offering double-digit annual percentage yields on deposits. From asset management to auditing smart contracts, the DeFi space is creating decentralized infrastructure for scalable money markets.
According to Stani Kulechov, co-founder of the Aave DeFi protocol, rates are high during bull markets because the funds are used to leverage more capital, with the cost of margin pushing up the yield. “New innovation in DeFi is consuming more stablecoins, which further increases the yield. Unless there is a new capital injection — these rates might stick for a while,” he said.
The Ethereum network currently hosts most of the DeFi applications, and this has barred tokens that aren’t available on the network from participating in decentralized finance. Bitcoin, for example, despite being the largest cryptocurrency by market capitalization, has only recently found its way onto DeFi platforms.
Related: DeFi yield farming, explained
With Kava’s Hard Protocol, investors can yield farm using Bitcoin and other non-ERC-20 tokens like XRP and Binance Coin (BNB). Backed by some prominent names (Ripple, Arrington XRP Capital and Digital Asset Capital Management, among others), the platforms allow users to stake their cryptocurrencies into a pool of assets, which is lent out to borrowers to generate interest.
The team also plans to add support for Ethereum-based tokens in the near future. The network’s upgrade to Kava 5.1, which was postponed to April 8 after failing to reach the required quorum, will also introduce the Hard Protocol V2, bringing powerful incentivization schemes and enhancements to its governance model.
Most loans in DeFi are overcollateralized, meaning the pool always has more money than it lends out. In case the value of the issued token drops, funds in the pool are liquidated to compensate.
According to Anton Bukov, co-founder of decentralized exchange aggregator 1inch, blockchains are the first-ever unbiased executors in human history — very limited, but ultimately fair — and could deliver new services and new flows of interactions in future. “Developers are doing their best to solve potential dishonesty issues of existing flows and invent new flows by replacing intermediaries,” he said.
By creating an automated platform to borrow and lend assets, decentralized finance enables money markets without intermediaries, custodians or the high fees that stem from high infrastructural costs.
Of the many trends DeFi has set into motion over the last few years, yield farming has attracted quite a lot of attention. Yield farming is when the network rewards liquidity providers with tokens that can be further invested into other platforms to generate more liquidity tokens.
Simple in concept, yield farmers are some of the most vigilant traders out there, constantly switching up their strategies to maximize their yield and tracking rates across all platforms to ensure they’re getting the sweetest deal. The potential rate of return can become obscenely high, but it’s still unclear whether yield farming is just a fad or a phenomenon in the making. Kulechov added:
“Yield farming is simply a way to distribute governance power to users and stakeholders. What actually matters is whether the product itself would find protocol market/fit. Most successful governance power distributions with yield farming have been with protocols that have found protocol market/fit before such programs.”
Yield farming has an incredibly positive feedback loop, with an increase in participation pushing the value of its governance token up, driving further growth. According to Kava CEO Brian Kerr, while this feedback loop can produce very positive results in bull markets, it can have entirely the opposite effects in falling markets:
“It will be up to the governance groups of the various projects to navigate bear markets effectively, by ratcheting back rewards before a full-on death spiral occurs. Regardless of bull or bear markets, yield farming will be a mainstay in blockchain projects for years to come.”
Money markets are the pillars of our global financial system, but most of its transactions occur between financial institutions like banks and other companies in time deposit markets. However, some of these transactions do find their way to consumers through money market mutual funds and other investment vehicles.
Decentralization is the next frontier for finance, and as prominent investors continue to engage with the DeFi space, a decentralized economy seems all but inevitable. Participating in the burgeoning environment may be a risky bet today, but what decentralized finance platforms learn now will be the foundation of the robust DeFi applications of the future. According to Bukov, the higher interest rates of DeFi platforms are “absolutely sustainable.” He added:
“Higher profits are usually involved with higher risks. So the risk-profit model of all these opportunities is always nearly balanced. Normalizing risks would decrease profits because more participants will join to share the rewards.”
From smart contract malfunctions to the unauthorized withdrawal of community funds, the DeFi space is a place of both miracles and nightmares. DeFi-based yield farming platforms are still in their very early stages, and while the numbers can be all too tempting at times, it’s crucial to do your own research before investing in any platform or asset.