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The digital crypto-assets markets have developed into a vibrant ecosystem of speculators, traders, investors, market makers, liquidators, and many more niche-specific roles such as prediction market outcome reporters, decentralized governance participants, debt underwriters, transaction validators, and others.
Consequently, peer-to-peer financial engineering picked up steam significantly. It accelerated over the past year, bringing quite a few opportunities for turning a profit while participating and taking up some role in the system.
What is DeFi (Decentralized Finance)?
This trend of permissionless financial engineering has come to be known as the DeFi movement. It takes the basic concept of Bitcoin its logical step further towards more sophisticated transaction types and self-enforceable contractual agreements expressed in executable code residing on the shared ledger (what’s called the blockchain).
This allows for self-executable and transparent business logic to be programmed (so-called “smart contracts”) and procedures carried out in the form of what is usually referred to as protocols.
The protocols form the back-end logic of web applications (dApps, or decentralized applications), including the user interfaces of front-ends. On the UI/UX side of things, Ethereum and DeFi have done a great job in providing users with a smooth, simple, and intuitive user experience (with most things fairly self-explanatory).
In what follows next we’ll overview a number of decentralized peer-to-peer lending protocols and applications running on Ethereum.
What is over-collateralized secured lending?
While there’s variation among them in the assets offered and loan terms, the fundamental loan structure follows more or less the same logic across all of them, consisting mostly of over-collateralized secured lending where the borrower puts up more than the value of what he borrows in whatever assets or tokens (usually around 150% over-collateralized).
This means that you need to put up a guarantee of (more or less volatile, more or less liquid) crypto-assets, the total value of which is more than 115-150% of what you’re borrowing for them (e.g., in some cases, you can borrow 80% of what you’re putting up).
This may not make sense immediately, but it really very much depends on the kinds of assets you’re lending, borrowing, or putting up as collateral.
For example, the value of Ether may appreciate, and you do not want to sell it. Still, you do need actual money off it, so you can lock it up for some stable Dai as fixed to the US dollar and, upon repayment, get your Ether back (which can appreciate, but you still need to pay only that much Dai back).
This form of secured lending is one of the most primitive financial instruments and not always as capital efficient in many instances. Still, other mechanisms are gradually developing as DeFi evolves.
For instance, there’s already the possibility of altogether uncollateralized debts utilizing credit assessment based on various social cues, factors, and history – a role that underwriters fulfill in vouching for borrowers.
The yielded returns on-lent tokens and assets, on the other hand, are usually algorithmically set depending on market forces of supply and demand and tend to vary and fluctuate on a per-block basis (~every 12 seconds, which is also the basis on which you’re paid out according to how much you’ve put up in the liquidity pool).
Sometimes some assets are more utilized by the markets than others, and the interest rate goes up accordingly. But one that tends to be stable in giving the highest returns is the Dai stablecoin.
Besides that, the Maker DAO itself (what’s sometimes referred to as “the Fed of the Ethereum ecosystem”) offers a fairly more stable and fixed interest rate of return for locking up Dai (the Dai Savings Rate, explained below) and the Aave protocol also offers a stable interest rate (to choose from, between it and a fluctuating one).
Either way, all will be crystallized as we go on, briefly describing each protocol/platform.
Compound: Short-Term Lending & Borrowing of Ethereum-based Crypto-assets
Compound is an algorithmic money market protocol running on Ethereum and one of the more popular applications of Ethereum’s DeFi stack. By definition, a money market is a market dealing in short-term loans providing in the process liquidity for the global financial system and capital markets.
Compound operates similar to a money market but within Ethereum’s decentralized peer-to-peer infrastructure which disintermediates banks and financial institutions as middlemen.
Compound lets users supply their Ethereum-based assets/tokens to liquidity pools and immediately start earning continuously-compounding volatile interest automatically adjusted against market forces of supply and demand and accruing at a per-block basis (every ~12-15 seconds).
On the flip side, it allows for the borrowing of assets against collateral, usually for the purposes of short-term leverage.
Currently supplied assets to lend and borrow on Compound include:
- Ether (ETH)
- Sai (the legacy single-collateral Dai)
- Augur’s REP token
- Wrapped BTC (WBTC)
- 0x’s ZRX token
- Basic Attention Token (BAT)
Perhaps the most popular and highest-earning among those is the Dai stablecoin. There are no extra fees incurred by the platform and the upgraded v2 protocol has been security audited and formally verified.
The supplied assets are represented as cTokens (e.g., cDai, cBAT) – representations of the underlying asset that earn interest and serve as collateral.
The Compound cTokens contain the core logic of the protocol and each cToken is given an interest rate and risk model (algorithmically determined based on current liquidity and market utilization) and allows accounts to supply and redeem capital and to borrow and repay what has been borrowed.
Users can borrow up to 50-75% of the value of their cTokens depending on the quality of the underlying and if their debt crosses the threshold after which it becomes under-collateralized anyone can step in and liquidate for a 5% discount on the liquidated assets.
Basically, individuals with long-term investments (“hodlers”) in any of the supported assets can make use of Compound as a source of additional returns on their investment. The web interface to Compound is accessible via app.compound.finance which must be connected to your account via the MetaMask interface, Coinbase Wallet or Ledger Hardware.
MetaMask is the most popular and commonly used bridge for accessing Ethereum applications which functions as a wallet storing one’s Ether and/or tokens. It comes as a browser add-on and supports most browsers.
Compound will automatically connect to your account asking for your permission to do so. Once connected, your address and the associated balances will show up in the Compound web interface.
Then you need to choose the market of the asset you wish to supply. The annual percentage yields (APY) for both supplying and borrowing each asset are shown next to their market size at the current time. These are the selected assets based on their liquidity and usage in the Ethereum ecosystem.
Choosing BAT (Basic Attention Token) in the example above, we proceed to give access to the Compound smart contract to handle our BAT balance by clicking on “Enable BAT”.
Once the approval is confirmed you’ll see a ‘Supply’ and a ‘Borrow’ button under the BAT section of Compound and you can proceed to supply the amount of BAT you’d like to lend. Once setting the desired amount and clicking on ‘Supply’ you’ll have to confirm the transaction details in MetaMask as before.
Upon confirmation, you’ll receive the corresponding amount of Compound tokens (in this case cBAT tokens) – the representation of the interest-earning BAT pooled in the Compound supply pool. To redeem assets you just click the ‘Withdraw’ button and approve the transaction to have your BAT sent back.
You can track and monitor Ethereum addresses and their associated Compound transactions and their status/health at defiwatch.io. One can also easily implement a liquidation bot seeking unhealthy and underwater accounts using the Compound API as described in more detail here.
Note that Compound is at present a custodial platform where the private administrator key is itself centralized, creating a single point of failure should it ever get compromised.
Dharma: Peer-to-Peer Lending and Borrowing Marketplace
Dharma is a peer-to-peer marketplace for non-custodial lending and borrowing that also builds on Ethereum and makes use of Compound itself.
Dharma’s debt market matches borrower requests with lender offers for fixed-duration, fixed-rate loans denominated and collateralized in Ether (ETH), Dai or USDC. Dharma uses relayers (similar to 0x) which provide the interface or format for submitting and gathering orders which are stored off-chain and only settled on-chain.
Lenders can lock up collateral and earn interest at market-determined rates while borrowers put up loan requests setting the amount, duration, interest rate, liquidation threshold, collateral type and the amount they’re putting up for what they’re borrowing. It is worth mentioning that in the case of collateralized loans, where debtors put up collateral by which creditors can recover the value of their loan should the borrower happen to ever default.
Requests that are set up to Dharma’s default parameters may be instantly matched. Liquidation occurs if a borrower fails to repay on time or if collateral value falls below the agreed-upon liquidation threshold.
In Dharma, it’s also possible to take a loan without putting up any collateral at all by requesting a debt from one of the underwriters who evaluate the debtor’s credibility and manage the debt parameters accordingly.
Once the debtor and the underwriter settle, the underwriter submits the signed offer to one of the relayers and creditors can pick up the offer and evaluate the terms and the underwriter’s reputation in deciding whether to trust it.
To use Dharma you need to sign up with your e-mail and provide your real names and country of residence.
Once you log in you’re given a deposit Dharma Ethereum address (beginning with 0x…) where you’d send your Dai or USDC. You can send directly from your wallet to the address or also make a purchase using a debit card or a bank account transfer.
So, upon registration, you enter into your Dharma user interface where you have your Dharma deposit address in the upper right corner and a “Make a Deposit” button right in front. Or you can also click on “View your Balances” just below it and go to the dashboard.
Once you make a deposit to your Dharma address you’ll start earning interest on it.
The payout: Interest is accrued in real-time (every ~15 seconds) and is withdrawable along with the principal at any time. The interest rates are a function of the asset’s utilization in the Compound protocol (described earlier) – the more liquid the asset the higher the interest.
Interest is currently at 8.45% and fluctuates every ~15 seconds. All interest in Dharma is generated by borrowers using the Compound protocol and they usually over-collateralize their debts to mitigate the risk to lenders.
The reasons for borrowing are usually either to get leverage to speculate or to use the profits made from the appreciation of a crypto-asset for some personal purchases without having to sell the asset itself.
As already mentioned, uncollateralized debts are also possible through Dharma underwriters. They evaluate the borrower’s credibility based on a set of heuristics and social cues to do with social media accounts and address history within Ethereum – both DeFi and overall, etc.
So, it’s necessary to have some online and crypto-networking presence and history before applying for uncollateralized debt (which is basically an alternative to what is known as one’s credit score otherwise).
CHAI: An Interest-Bearing Meta-Stablecoin (Dai + Interest + Spendable + Gas-less)
The DSR was implemented with the upgrade to Multi-Collateral Dai (MCD) as a mechanism for exercising control on the demand side of the supply and demand by offering an incentive in the form of an interest rate for locking some of Dai’s total supply (which is paid out from the stability fee).
More specifically, Dai is the stablecoin of the Ethereum ecosystem and an integral component to Ethereum DeFi (“decentralized finance”) stack of protocols and applications. As such, it is managed by a DAO (decentralized autonomous organization) consisting of the MKR token holders which calibrate system parameters and handle risk.
Note: Unlike other stablecoins in the space, Dai operates entirely within the crypto sphere and maintains robust level of decentralization – instead of backing its stablecoin with reserves of USD in bank accounts external to the system, it takes up a number of crypto assets as collateral against which it generates Dai and adjusts it in reference to the US dollar.
Now, when Dai is locked into DSR mode of accruing annual interest (at 7.75% at the time of writing this) it cannot be spent or transferred and this is where we come back to CHAI. CHAI locks your Dai in DSR mode but goes a few steps further in issuing a proportionate amount of CHAI tokens, which function as mobile, un-locked, spendable and transferrable certificates for DSR-locked Dai which can be used to reclaim back locked Dai itself at any time.
The fixed, stable value of Dai in addition to the accruing annual interest of DSR makes Dai a stable store of value (where whether Bitcoin is such is a matter to debate since it’s subject to sudden volatility swings).
CHAI allows you to make payments in DSR locked Dai while still growing savings and earning interest on it and as an added bonus, CHAI supports gas-less token transfers (no transaction fees).
CHAI was created by Martin Lundfall, Lucas Vogelsang and Lev Livnev and was deployed on December the 1st 2019. To wrap your Dai into CHAI, just access the interface at chai.money and connect it with your wallet via MetaMask. Then enter the amount you’d like to convert and click convert, then confirm the transaction via MetaMask and your Dai will be deposited into the DSR contract, issuing CHAI tokens in return.
And whenever you’d like to stop “brewing” your Dai and cash out back into Dai, just go over to the CHAI > DAI tab and proceed redeeming your tokens for Dai plus accrued interest.
Uniswap: Automated Market Maker Earning Transaction Fees For Liquidity Provision of Assets
Uniswap is one of the indispensable public services in the DeFi ecosystem. It’s a decentralized exchange and an automated market maker providing liquidity and seamlessly swapping between ETH and any ERC-20 token. Basically a formalized model for pooling liquidity reserves it also allows you to contribute assets and pocket small fees on each trade or transaction taking place.
Market making and liquidity provision is not the same as just buying and selling but involves the deposit of the equivalent value of both Ether and the ERC-20 token. Liquidity is pooled across all providers contributing their assets and a special “pool” token tracks and record-keeps everybody’s contributions.
Pool tokens are issued upon depositing liquidity and burned upon withdrawal of a proportional share of the reserves. Here’s the Uniswap protocol specification for any further details.
How all this works is very simple and intuitively straightforward. Just head to uniswap.exchange/add-liquidity, connect the interface to your address via MetaMask and proceed to add liquidity by pooling whatever surplus assets you may happen to hold.
You can find the best current liquidity pools that generate the highest percentage of returns at pools.fyi and change between them accordingly.
Note: Another tool that helps you analyze investments in Uniswap and find the best liquidity pools available can be found at uniswaproi.com – you enter en Ethereum address to analyze and the app calculates all the current Uniswap-related values associated with that address.
Nuo Network: Another Peer-to-Peer Lending Platform
It has integrated a range of features and services including Wyre support which allows for easily converting fiat to Dai and Ether. The platform charges no fees itself and covers much of users’ gas fees by leveraging meta transactions.
Wyre is a fiat on-ramp to Ethereum and DeFi which makes debit/credit card and bank account transactions easily implementable as a module and via APIs. Wyre allows for the easy, quick and fairly frictionless black-and-forth conservation between fiat money and crypto-assets.
Additionally the platform offers 3x margin trading on Kyber and Uniswap providing instant liquidity for long and short positions on Bitcoin, Ether and some select ERC-20 tokens.
As a borrower you apply for a loan by pledging some collateral in any of the supported assets. User funds are locked in contract-based accounts without the team having any custodial control or access to funds.
On the lending side, Nuo operates debt reserves where lenders pool their assets and earn daily interest as paid by the borrowers in proportion to the lender’s share in the debt reserve. To participate in a lending pool, users can set up a debt reserve for an asset or token they choose for a specified duration.
Note: When the reserve expires, the entire amount of the principal plus the interest earned gets automatically transferred from the reserve contract to one’s Nuo account. Otherwise, the daily interest accrued in the reserve contract is paid out regularly and proportionately distributed every day at 00.00 GMT.
Annual premium rate or APR is the return a lender would get if they lock up their tokens for a year based on the historical performance of that token debt reserve.
APR is calculated based on average daily interest distributed to a token reserve and future returns may not necessarily reflect the historical returns (given the lack of long-term historicity and data in such nascent, emerging and somewhat experimental markets).
To bootstrap initial liquidity on the platform, Nuo is also offering an additional 1% monthly market maker bonus for the lending of certain chosen tokens. Below are the assets Nuo supports.
Nuo provides a simple and straightforward interface at app.nuo.network and the estimated yearly returns are automatically calculated given the current market.
Most Ethereum DeFi lending protocols share the same core operational logic and mechanics of how they work, but there’s may still be some significant differences between them (e.g., whether custodial or non-custodial, the range of assets supported, if it uses pools, relayers or order books, how it structures transactions, etc.)
In Nuo, you proceed to register via MetaMask as with all the previously reviewed platforms already and likewise go on to make a deposit in any of the assets to your Nuo balance before going on to pool them in a reserve.
The tokens selected for liquidity provision and borrow represent the quality assets within the Ethereum ecosystem, such that have some predictable reliability and have been assessed as acceptable to standardize portfolios and risk profiles on the basis of.
Aave: Non-Custodial Open Source Protocol for Earning Interests on Deposits and Borrowing Assets
Aave, previously known as Ethlend launched as an ICO in the autumn of 2017. It supports significantly more assets than Compound and unique to it is how it allows you to switch between a variable and a stable interest rate model at any time.
The other special feature of it is the so-called flash loans that give developers the ability to code dApps (decentralized applications) which allow a flash loan to occur – which means money is borrowed from Aave and something is done with it (according to the logic of what the dApp needs and does) and then it’s returned back – all in a single transaction in within a very short period.
Aave has been security audited by OpenZeppelin and the report can be found here. To use Aave you go to the web interface at app.aave.com and connect it to MetaMask as in all the other instances already. After that, you choose what asset and how much of it to deposit from your wallet into the Aave contract.
After that, you need to confirm an approval and a deposit transaction (and pay the associated gas fees) in sequence one after the other.
After that’s done, you have successfully made your deposit into the lending pool reserve and interest starts accruing. The front-end interface and entire user experience of managing these operations is extremely simple and straightforward.
Aave has recently re-branded itself from Ethlend and its newly revised and re-designed protocol is well explained and specified in more detail in their recently released white paper from January 2020.
Additional Tools and Resources
A dashboard provided at defipulse.com shows the interest rates of the various lending platforms curated there (which don’t include Aave and others which may have more centralized aspects and components to them).
The Maker DAO, which manages the Dai stablecoin, also functions at the same time as a lending platform following the same logic, but limiting itself to the issuance of Dai against collateral (in what are called Collateral Debt Positions or CDPs, the logic of which is programmed in a smart contract template).
Defipulse is essentially a curated catalog of Ethereum DeFi instruments, protocols, and applications (brought to you and maintained by the Concourse community) and includes detailed real-time metrics and aggregated data – can be thought of as something along the lines of Coinmarketcap for the DeFi ecosystem.
There’s a read-only DeFi profile explorer for Compound and Uniswap available at defiscan.io where you can search by Ethereum address or ENS (Ethereum Name Service, an alternative to DNS) name. And here you can access a Compound liquidation tracking dashboard to also take advantage of liquidations – that is when the pledged collateral of debt is going below the critical accepted threshold of where it can cover that debt and gets automatically sold off on the open market at a discount to incentivize liquidators.
In the case of Compound, if the ratio of the value of the collateral falls below 150% of that of the loan it allows anyone to call the
liquidateBorrow()function of the money market smart contract and buy off a portion or the entirety of the collateral at 5% discount. So liquidators and automated liquidation bots and mechanisms constitute yet another aspect of that market and one that can also be in itself quite profitable.
And, lastly, DeFi Saver is a well-known service in the industry providing an integrated dashboard for decentralized finance protocols where you can monitor the health of all your loan/debt positions and re-finance or take advantage of current market circumstances in various ways.
Conclusion and Summary
DeFi lending protocols are mostly good for early investors in certain digital crypto-assets, tokens and coins who otherwise mostly just happen to necessarily hoarding them.
Profits are based on how much you put up, so for example, 8 percent a year on 1000 USD may not seem as much. Compound goes about compounding that interest. And the borrowing side usually consists of traders who are willing to take the risk of leverage in speculating in those still somewhat murky, but highly promising emerging markets.
It must also be understood that DeFi in its current manifestation is just the beginning – as things build upon each other and liquidity grows, the market and the open finance technology gets ever more mature. What these initial DeFi protocols mostly aim to do is bring more liquidity to the market – a critical component of any healthy market.
As time goes by, more thoughtful and reasonable ideas, propositions and models come about, as for example the recent one for liquidity funding by David Iach, as an alternative model to the ones of ICOs (Initial Coin Offerings) and IEOs (Initial Exchange Offerings) by making use of the Uniswap protocol and factory contract (of generating an Uniswap contract for any ETH/ERC-20 pair).
Overall, the open and permissionless nature of DeFi in its push towards the democratization of finance and making financial engineering accessible to anybody anywhere without a doubt comes off as a promising and worthwhile proposition.
Decentralized Finance is opening up whole new horizons of opportunity, where the legacy world proceeds in mostly predictable ways and the barriers-to-entry – regulatory or otherwise, define its world deeply embedded in authority and rules of admission, networks of power and criteria of weight.
Furthermore, traditional finance in our modern world is often quite weaponized and competitive, splitting the second in scalping the dime and necessarily proprietary and even sometimes black-boxed in its nature, while DeFi is open finance in the sense of the ethos of open-source (“free speech, not free beer”).
But the DeFi paradigm is, nonetheless, a lot more simple in its core operating logic and workings than open-source in the sense of building entire operating systems. It is a movement similar to what DIYbio and bio-hacking were to biotechnology, but applied to finance. And finance is ironically the field which requires the least background in understanding or having accumulated experience in anything.
Nonetheless, there are still associated risks, as with anything. But what is different is that, for example, the Maker DAO can tomorrow decide they’d re-program Dai in some other way, not necessarily pegged to the US dollar as the system’s numeraire.
In a case of emergency or crisis, the mechanisms and principles still stand as such and can be re-purposed and re-calibrated as necessary (e.g., Maker can peg Dai to IMF’s SDR currency basket, for example, or even eventually come up with its own reference point of stability).
While in legacy finance the deeply entangled inter-dependencies and ever-increasing complexity within the arrangements of centralized management and control, adversity, competition, and perverse incentives are what inevitably bring about crises and systemic failures. And in an important way, decentralized crypto-networks are meant to approach this problem of organizational complexity from altogether different premises and assumptions.
Bitcoin nor Ether clearly showed even by the very fact of their volatility in how they are themselves priced in US dollars and “fiat” – they just might realistically establish themselves as stable and reliable economies in themselves due to their decentralized peer-to-peer nature as parallel (economic, financial, political, etc.) systems.
And capital as such always tends to flee where it can if not grow at least be parked securely. Given all these factors and the opportunities already present, DeFi may very well present the best opportunity for the younger generation of otherwise largely screwed over millennials to put their efforts and attention into.