The Paradox of DeFi

Nic Carter and Linda Jeng have produced a useful paper titled “DeFi Protocol Risks: the Paradox of DeFi” that explores the risks that DeFi will need to address and navigate if it is to deliver on the promises that they believe it can. There is of course plenty of scepticism about the potential for blockchain and DeFi to change the future of finance (including from me). What makes this paper interesting is that it is written by two people involved in trying to make the systems work as opposed to simply throwing rocks from the sidelines.

Linda Jeng has a regulatory back ground but is currently the Global Head of Policy at Transparent Financial Systems. Nic is a General Partner at a seed-stage venture capital film that invests in blockchain related businesses. The paper they have written will contribute a chapter to a book being edited by Bill Coen (former Secretary General of the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision) and Diane Maurice to be titled “Regtech, Suptech and Beyond: Innovation and Technology in Financial Services” (RiskBooks).

Linda and Nic conceptually bucket DeFi risks into five categories: 

  1. interconnections with the traditional financial system, 
  2. operational risks stemming from underlying blockchains, 
  3. smart contract-based vulnerabilities, 
  4. other governance and regulatory risks, and 
  5. scalability challenges.

… and map out the relationships in this schematic

Conclusion: “No Free Lunch”

The paper concludes around the long standing principle firmly entrenched in the traditional financial world – there is “no free lunch”. Risk can be transformed but it is very hard to eliminate completely. Expressed another way, there is an inherent trade off in any system between efficiency and resilience.

Many of the things that make DeFi low cost and innovative also create operational risk and other challenges. Smart contracts sound cool, but when you frame them as “automated, hard-to-intervene contracts” it is easy to see they can also amplify risks. Scalability is identified as an especially hard problem if you are not willing to compromise on the principles that underpinned the original DeFI vision.

The paper is worth a read but if you are time poor then you can also read a short version via this post on Linda Jeng’s blog. Izabella Kaminska (FT Alphaville) also wrote about the paper here.

Tony – From the Outside

Progress in fast payment systems

As we contemplate new forms of money (both Central Bank Digital Currencies and new forms of private money like stablecoins), JP Koning makes the case that the modern payment systems available in the conventional financial system have improved more than is often appreciated …

The speeding up of modern payments is a great success story. Let me tell you a bit about it.To begin with, central banks and other public clearinghouses have spent the last 15-or-so years blanketing the globe with real-time retail payments systems. Europe has TIPS, UK has Faster Payments, India has IMPS, Sweden has BiR, Singapore FAST. There must be at least thirty or forty of these real-time retail payments system by now. 

The speed of these new platforms get passed on to the public by banks and fintechs, which are themselves connected to these core systems.

That is not to say they are perfect but it is helpful to properly understand what has been done already in order to better understand what the new forms truely offer.

You can read his post here ..

http://jpkoning.blogspot.com/2021/07/those-70s-ach-payments.html

Tony – From the Outside

Taming wildcat stablecoins …

… is the title of an interesting paper by Gary Gorton and Jeffrey Zhang which argues that:

  • Cryptocurrency, or stablecoins to be more precise, can be viewed as the latest variation in a long history of privately produced money
  • The experience of the United States during the Free Banking Era of the 19th century suggests that ” … privately produced monies are not an effective medium of exchange because they are not always accepted at par and are subject to bank runs”
  • Stablecoins are not as yet a systemic issue but could be, so policymakers need to adjust the regulatory framework now to be ready as these new forms of private money grow and and potentially evolve into something that can’t be ignored
  • Policy responses include regulating stablecoin issuers as banks and issuing a central bank digital currency
So what?

I am not convinced that a central bank digital currency is the solution. I can see a case for greater regulation of stablecoins but you need to be clear about exactly what type of stablecoin requires a policy response. Gorton and Zhang distinguish three categories …

The first includes cryptocurrencies that are not backed by anything, like Bitcoin. We call these “fiat cryptocurrencies.” Their defining feature is that they have no intrinsic value. Second, there are specialized “utility coins,” like the JPMorgan coin that is limited to internal use with large clients. Finally, there are “stablecoins,” which aspire to be used as a form of private money and so are allegedly backed one-for-one with government fiat currency (e.g., U.S. dollars)

I am yet to see a completely satisfactory taxonomy of stablecoins but at a minimum I would break the third category down further to distinguish the ways in which the peg is maintained. The (relatively few?) stablecoins that actually hold high quality USD assets on a 1:1 basis are different from those which hold material amounts of commercial paper in their reserve asset pool and different again from those which employ algorithmic protocols to maintain the peg.

However, you do not necessarily have to agree with their taxonomy, assessments or policy suggestions to get value from the paper – three things I found useful and interesting:

  1. The “no-questions-asked ” principle for anything that functions or aims to function as money
  2. Some technical insights into the economic and legal properties of stablecoins and stablecoin issuers
  3. Lessons to be learned from history, in particular the Free Banking Era of the 19th century
The “no-questions-asked” principle.

Money is conventionally defined in terms of three properties; a store of value, a unit of account and a medium of exchange. Gorton and Zhang argue that “The property that’s most obvious, yet not explicitly presented, is that money also must satisfy the no-questions-asked (“NQA”) principle, which requires the money be accepted in a transaction without due diligence on its value“. They freely admit that they have borrowed this idea from Bengt Holmstrom though I think he actually uses the term “information insensitive” as opposed to the more colloquial NQA principle.

Previous posts on this blog have looked at both Holmstrom’s paper and other work that Gorton has co-authored on the optimal level of information that different types of bank stakeholders require. If I understood Holmstrom correctly, he seemed to extend his thesis on the value of being able to trade on an “information insensitive” basis to argue that “opacity” in the debt market is something to be embraced rather than eliminated. I struggle with embracing opacity in this way but that in no way diminishes the validity of the distinction he draws between the relative value of information in debt and equity markets and its impact on liquidity.

Gorton and Zhang emphasise the importance of deposit insurance in underwriting confidence in and the liquidity of bank deposits as the primary form of private money. I think that is true in the sense that most bank deposit holders do not understand the mechanics of the preferred claim they have on the assets of the bank they have lent to but it seems to me that over-collateralisation is equally as important in underwriting the economics of bank deposits.

If I have not lost you at this point, you can explore this question further via this link to a post I did titled “Bank deposits – turning unsecured loans to highly leveraged companies into (mostly) risk free assets – an Australian perspective“. From my perspective, the idea that any form of money has to be designed to be “information insensitive” or NQA rings very true.

Insights drawn from a technical analysis of stablecoins and stablecoin issuers.

The paper delves in a reasonable amount of detail into the technicalities of whether stablecoins are economically or legally equivalent to demand deposits and the related question of whether stablecoin issuers might be considered to be banks. The distinction between the economic and the legal status is I think especially useful for understanding how banking regulators might engage with the stablecoin challenge.

The over arching point is that stablecoins that look and function like bank demand deposits should face equivalent levels of regulation. That does not necessarily mean exactly the same set of rules but something functionally equivalent.

One practical outcome of this analysis that I had not considered previously is that they deem Tether to be based on an “equity contract” relationship with its users whereas the other stablecoins they analyse are “debt contracts” (see below). The link between Tether and a money market fund and the risk of “breaking the buck” has been widely canvassed but I had not previously seen the issue framed in these legal terms.

This technical analysis is summarised in two tables (Table 2: Stablecoins and their Contracts as of June 30, 2021 and Table 3: Stablecoins, Redemptions, and Fiat Money as of June 30. 2021) that offer a useful reference point for understanding the mechanics and details of some of the major stablecoins issued to date. In addition, the appendix to the paper offers links to the sources used in the tables.

Lessons to be learned from history

It may have been repeated to the point of cliche but the idea that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (George Santayana generally gets the credit for this but variations are attributed to Edmund Burke and Sir Winston Churchill) resonates strongly with me. The general argument proposed by Gorton and Zhang is that lots of the ideas being tried out in stablecoin design and DeFi are variations on general principles that were similarly employed in the lightly regulated Free Banking Era but found wanting.

Even if you disagree with the conclusions they draw, the general principle of using economic history to explore what can be learned and what mistakes to avoid remains a useful discipline for any practitioner of the dark arts of banking and money creation.

Summing up in the authors’ own words

The paper is long (41 pages excluding the Appendix) but I will wrap up this post with an extract that gives you the essence of their argument in their own words.

Tony – From the Outside

Conclusion 

The more things change, the more they stay the same. It is still the case that regulation is being outpaced by innovation—thereby creating an uneven playing field—as it is easier and cheaper for more technologically advanced firms to offer similar products and services. 

In this case, it is also true that the problems associated with privately produced money are the same as they were one hundred and fifty years ago. We stress three points from our review of history. First, the use of private bank notes was a failure because they did not satisfy the NQA principle. Second, the U.S. government took control of the monetary system under the National Bank Act and subsequent legislation in order to eliminate the private bank note system in favor of a uniform currency—namely, national bank notes. Third, runs on demand deposits only ended with deposit insurance in 1934. 

Currently, it does not appear that stablecoins are used as money. But, as stablecoins evolve further, the stablecoin world will look increasingly like an unregulated version of the Free Banking Era—a world of wildcat banking. During the Free Banking Era, private bank monies circulated at time-varying discounts based on geography and the perceived risk of the issuing bank. Stablecoin prices are independent of geography but not independent of the perceived risk of their backing assets. If they succeed in differentiating themselves from fiat cryptocurrencies and become used as money, then they will likely trade at time-varying discounts as well. Policymakers have a couple of ways to address this development, and they better get going. 

Grant Williams explores the two sides of Tether

Grant Williams offers a deep dive into the questions that have dogged Tether via a podcast discussion with two Tether sceptics. In addition (though I am not sure how long this link will be active) he is also offering access to the June edition of his newsletter which includes a detailed account of the case against Tether.

William’s perspective is explicitly Tether sceptical. However, he also includes a long Twitter thread from Jim Bianco attempting (in Bianco’s words) “to pushback on the FUD about USDT”. I am not sure Williams adds anything new to the sceptical view but it is useful to see the counter-narrative offered by Bianco covered in the newsletter. That said, my read of Bianco’s contribution is that it is more a defence of the general promise of a decentralised DeFi system, than it is a defence of Tether itself.

The Tether part of the newsletter is a long read at 25 pages (there is always the podcast if you prefer) but it does offer a comprehensive account of the sceptical position on Tether and a flavour of the counter argument.

Tony – From the Outside

Stablecoin backing

… is a hot topic full of claims, counter claims and clarifications. Tether’s USDT token has been getting the bulk of the attention to date but questions are now being asked about Circle’s USDC token (a cryptographic stored value token or stablecoin that allows users to trade crypto assets).

My understanding is that USDC is one of the better (in relative terms) stable coins regarding backing and disclosure but this analysis from Amy Castor argues that is still not especially good and may be getting worse. The Financial Times makes a similar argument.

The broad problem they outline

  • Stablecoins generally start out with a promise that each coin is backed 1:1 with fiat currency (typically USD) or fully reserved
  • Ideally those fiat currency reserves are held on deposit in a bank on a custodial basis
  • Over time that simple promise becomes more nuanced with qualifications that dilute the fiat currency component and introduce concepts like “approved investments”
  • The location of the deposit may also become ambiguous
  • Not always clear if the backing itself has evolved or the disclosure evolves in response to questioning

USDT has been the most high profile example of asset backing being understood to be USD cash but evolving into something USD based but not always 100% cash or necessarily liquid. The two sources cited above suggest that USDC backing may also be less than 100% USD.

Amy Castor points to the change in USDC disclosure between February and March 2021 as evidence of an apparent change in (or clarification of?) the composition of the reserve backing.

Source: Amy Castor, “What’s backing Circle’s 25B USDC? We may never know”

As always I may be missing something, and maybe this is just my traditional banking bias, but Amy poses what seem to me to be pretty reasonable questions like “what are those approved investments? Who approves them? What percentage of assets are in that category?” that Circle is yet to answer.

Tony – From The Outside

The BIS publishes some research on what drives investment in cryptocurrencies

Came across this paper published by the BIS titled “Distrust or speculation? The socioeconomic drivers of US cryptocurrency investments” authored by Raphael Auer and David Tercero-Lucas. The paper makes clear that its conclusions are not necessarily endorsed by the BIS but it is interesting none the less.

The authors downplay the idea that cryptocurrencies are all about opting out of fiat currencies and cite evidence that investors are treating crypto as just another asset class.

From a policy perspective, the overall takeaway of our analysis is that as the objectives of investors are the same as those for other asset classes, so should be the regulation. Cryptocurrencies are not sought as an alternative to fiat currencies or regulated finance, but instead are a niche digital speculation object.

From this perspective, increased regulation is actually a good thing for crypto

A clarifying regulatory and supervisory framework for cryptocurrency markets may be beneficial for the industry. In fact, regulatory announcements have had a strong impact on cryptocurrency prices and transaction volumes (Auer and Claessens, 2019, 2020), and those pointing to the establishment of specific regulations tailored to cryptocurrencies and initial coin offerings are strongly correlated with relevant market gains.

They go so far as arguing that regulation may actually improve the long term viability of the asset class by addressing the problems associated with the energy consumption of the “proof of work” model.

Better regulation may also be beneficial – quintessential in fact – for the industry when it comes to the basic security model of many cryptocurrencies. This is so as the long-term viability of cryptocurrencies based on proof-of-work is questionable. Auer (2019a) shows that proof-of-work can only achieve payment security (i.e., finality) if the income of miners is high, and it is questionable whether transaction fees will always be high enough to generate an adequate level of income to guarantee save transactions and rule out majority attacks. In the particular for the case of Bitcoin, the security of payments will decrease each time the “block subsidy” declines (Auer, 2020). Potential solutions often involve some degree of institutionalisation, which in the long-run may require regulation or supervision.

I have to confess that I skimmed over the middle section of the paper that documented the modelling the authors used so I can’t attest to the reliability of the research. I read it mostly from the perspective of gaining a perspective on how the regulatory community is thinking about cryptocurrency.

Tony – From the Outside

A contest to control crypto

Gillian Tett (Financial Times) makes an interesting contribution to the crypto currency debate (link here) using Niall Ferguson’s metaphor of the “Square” and the “Tower” to examine the contest for who controls crypto.

Worth reading in full but here is a flavour of her observations…

Where does this leave the crypto “square”? In China, I suspect it will gradually be crushed. Beijing seems intent on using CBDCs to centralise power. In Europe, the “square” may be curbed by bureaucracy.

But the really interesting issue is what will happen in the US, a country that venerates free-market ideas and network-driven innovation. “American cultural values — from support for the underdog to adulation of the frontier explorer — seem to be the precipitating source of how crypto is changing our concept of money,” notes anthropologist Sara Ceraldi. Don’t count out the crowd.

Either way, the point is that nobody can explain crypto prices or other meme assets with monetary economics or portfolio theory alone. The power and culture of “squares” and “towers” matter. Rarely has finance been so fascinating or so hard to model with maths.

Gillian Tett, “A contest to control crypto is underway” Financial Times 24 June 2021

Tony – From The Outside

Central bank digital currencies – Game On

FT Alphaville today wrote up some of the highlights they picked up from a report included in the Annual Economic Report published by Bank for International Settlements (BIS).

The highlights I picked up from the Alphaville column included:

  • Central Bank Digital Currencies (CBDCs) now seem a matter of when, not if, primarily because the BIS has concluded that they need to get ahead of Big Tech (i.e. Big Tech are pushing ahead with their own versions of digital currency in a number of jurisdictions so central banks need to respond to these initiatives)
  • The fact that China is committed to a digital currency with the potential to gain a “first-mover advantage” also seems to be a factor
  • The BIS does not however see a CBDC as adding much value if your financial system already has a well functioning, retail fast payments system with all of the safeguards required by know-your-customer regulations
  • In terms of design, the BIS seems to be opting for an account based (as opposed to token based) form of digital money
  • Two of the larger design issues associated with implementing a CBDC are privacy versus security concerns and the potential for crowding out (i.e. how the new form of digital money impacts financial systems where banks are established as the primary suppliers of digital money).

There is a lot to unpack in the BIS paper but it is worth noting one thing I found immediately curious. In responding to the concerns about privacy versus security, Alphaville noted that “The report … says CBDCs could even have a built-in layer of anonymity for very small inconsequential transactions“.

That might work from an Anti Money Laundering (AML) perspective but it is far from clear to me how you would define “very small inconsequential transactions” in a world where a relatively small number of low value payments can finance child pornography. Westpac Banking Corporation paid a high price for failing to comply with reporting requirements in this regard so it is hard to see how a CBDC could define a threshold that was inconsequential.

Alphaville is of course just one perspective. I am yet to read the BIS paper in full but these are the key takeaways that the BIS author has chosen to highlight:

. Central bank digital currencies (CBDCs) offer in digital form the unique advantages of central bank money: settlement finality, liquidity and integrity. They are an advanced representation of money for the digital economy.

• Digital money should be designed with the public interest in mind. Like the latest generation of instant retail payment systems, retail CBDCs could ensure open payment platforms and a competitive level playing field that is conducive to innovation. 

• The ultimate benefits of adopting a new payment technology will depend on the competitive structure of the underlying payment system and data governance arrangements. The same technology that can encourage a virtuous circle of greater access, lower costs and better services might equally induce a vicious circle of data silos, market power and anti-competitive practices. CBDCs and open platforms are the most conducive to a virtuous circle.

• CBDCs built on digital identification could improve cross-border payments, and limit the risks of currency substitution. Multi-CBDC arrangements could surmount the hurdles of sharing digital IDs across borders, but will require international cooperation.

“CBDCs: an opportunity for the monetary system”, BIS Annual Economic Report 2021

Tony – From the Outside

The meltdown of IRON

Kudos to “Irony Holder” for a great title to an equally interesting post exploring what went wrong with the IRON stablecoin. My last post “A bank run in CryptoLand” flagged a short summary of the demise of IRON in Matt Levine’s Money Stuff column in Bloomberg and Matt’s latest column put me onto Irony Holder for a more detailed account of what went wrong. I suspect that I will be returning to the stablecoin topic many times before I am done.

One of the challenges in banking and finance is figuring our what is “new and useful” versus what is simply a “new way of repeating past mistakes” and stablecoins offer a rich palette for exploring this question. I remain open to the possibility that stablecoins will produce something more than a useful tool for managing trading in cryptoassets. The potential to make low value international payments cheaper and faster seems like one of the obvious places where the existing financial system could be improved on.

However, it seems equally likely that stablecoin innovation will repeat mistakes of the past so these post mortems are always useful. I recommend reading Irony Holder’s account in full (especially for the code error in the smart contract) but this is what I took away:

  • Part of the problem with IRON seems to be that the developers prioritised “efficiency”. In my experience the pursuit of efficiency has an unfortunate tendency to result in systems that are neither robust nor resilient – two highly desirable qualities in anything that facilitates the transfer of value. That observation (“efficient is rarely if ever resilient”) is of course based on the hard lesson that the conventional financial system learned from way it operated in the lead up to the Global Finance Crisis.
  • Algorithmic stablecoins like IRON appear to down play, or avoid completely, the need for high quality collateral. Experience in the conventional financial system suggests that collateral (ideally lots of it) is a feature of robust and resilient payment systems.
  • Yield farming around the IRON-USDC pair was producing extraordinary returns. High returns are a feature of the crypto asset world but maybe high returns on a stablecoin should have been a red flag?

I have over four decades of experience in the conventional financial system but I am a “noob” in this space (crypto-DeFi-digital) so the observations above should be read with that caveat in mind. It also important to remember that the issues above do not necessarily extend to other types of stablecoin. My understanding is that the algorithmic approach has not achieved as much traction as fiat and crypto collateralised approaches.

Hopefully you find the links (and summary) useful but also tell me what I am missing.

Tony – From the Outside

A bank run in CryptoLand

In my last post I flagged a great article from Marc Rubinstein using MakerDAO to explain some of the principles of Decentralised Finance (DeFi). One of the points I found especially interesting was the parallels that Rubinstein noted between 21st century DeFi and the free banking systems that evolved during the 18th and 19th centuries

I wound up confessing that while I am a long way from claiming any real DeFi expertise, I did believe that it would be useful to reflect on why free banking is no longer the way the conventional banking system operates.

In that spirit, it appears that the IRON stablecoin has the honour of recording the first bank run in cryptoland.

We never thought it would happen, but it just did. We just experienced the world’s first large-scale crypto bank run.

https://ironfinance.medium.com/iron-finance-post-mortem-17-june-2021-6a4e9ccf23f5

No doubt there will be plenty written on this but Matt Levine’s Bloomberg column offers a quick summary of what happened.

The core of an algorithmic stablecoin is that you have some other token that is not meant to be stable, but that is meant to support the stablecoin by being arbitrarily issuable. It doesn’t matter if Titanium is worth $65 or $0.65, as long as you can always issue a few million dollars’ worth of it. But you can’t, not always, and that does matter.

Money Stuff by Matt Levine 18 June 2021

Algorithmic is of course just one approach to stablecoin mechanics. I hope to do a deeper dive into stablecoins in a future post.

Tony – From the Outside