DeFi Investing 101: What Is It? Where Do You Start? What Are the Risks?

DeFi

Decentralized finance, commonly known as DeFi, has been the hottest talking point in the digital asset markets in 2020. Internet-based financial protocols are providing new avenues for tech-savvy investors to earn double and triple-digit yields, attracting more and more investors to this space.

Learn what DeFi is and how to invest in this new, high-risk digital asset class.

What is DeFi?

Decentralized finance (DeFi) refers to open-source financial software that aims to provide financial services to anyone with an internet connection.

Autonomous, internet-native financial protocols provide an array of financial services by replacing traditional financial intermediaries with smart contracts and a hard-coded economic incentive structure.

In today’s DeFi market, you can:

  • Deposit digital assets into money market protocols to earn above-average yields
  • Borrow digital assets to place leveraged long positions in the market
  • Convert one digital asset for another using autonomous trading pools
  • Earn fees for providing liquidity to decentralized trading pools
  • Invest in tokenized traditional assets (equities, commodities, and FX)
  • Hedge your digital asset portfolio using decentralized derivatives

And that’s not all! New decentralized financial solutions are emerging on a monthly basis, suggesting that this growing market is just getting started.

Total value locked USD in DeFi
Image by defipulse.com

At the time of writing, the total US dollar value “locked up” in DeFi protocol stood at $14.37 billion.

In comparison to Bitcoin’s $347 billion market capitalization, that may seem small. But given that the DeFi industry is only two years old, the size of this nascent market is already quite impressive.

DeFi: The Next Step Into a Bankless Future

DeFi decentralized finance.

DeFi proponents believe that the developments in the decentralized finance market are the next steps towards a bankless future.

The decentralized digital currency, Bitcoin, enables us to store, send, and receive monetary value over the internet. The next iteration of this decentralized, bankless future are the autonomous financial products and services built on top of blockchain networks, such as Ethereum.

Mythos Capital founder and outspoken DeFi advocate, Ryan Sean Adams, wrote in his daily newsletter, Bankless:

“We’re getting closer to the point where people don’t need a bank to bank. Savings accounts, mutual funds, mobile payments—these can be replaced by a bankless alternative….today! Alternatives that are better than incumbents options—alternatives that are accessible to anyone in the world with a smartphone!”

He has a point.

Despite still being in its early stages, the DeFi industry already allows individuals across the globe to download an app, buy digital currency, and deposit it to earn higher interest rates than on traditional savings accounts.

And best of all, this can be done without the need for paperwork, identity verification, or a KYC check. All it takes is a smartphone!

The idea of a bankless future is, therefore, not so far-fetched. If you can download a suite of smartphone apps that can effectively do everything a bank does, why would you ever walk into a bank branch again?

Yield Farming: The Hottest Digital Asset Trend in 2020

When talking about the DeFi market, there is no way around the topic of “yield farming.”

Yield farming, also known as liquidity mining, involves depositing digital assets into yield-generating protocols that reward users with a token that is issued to liquidity providers as an incentive to use the platform.

Yield farming.

For example, a yield-hungry investor could lend USD Coin (USDC) on Compound and earn interest that is determined by market forces of the USD Coin borrowing and lending pool. Additionally, as a liquidity provider on Compound, the investor would also receive Compound (COMP) protocol tokens in relation to the amount the user contributes to the pool.

As a result, the “yield farmer” would earn interest for depositing their USDC in the lending pool and earn yield in the form of COMP tokens for providing liquidity to the protocol.

That’s yield farming. 

This trend took off as newly launched protocols started offering triple and quadruple-digit APYs, paid in the form of their protocol tokens to lure in yield farmers.

Unfortunately, many investors lost money as unaudited, prematurely launched code led to the exploitation of vulnerabilities in smart contracts that caused a loss of funds for users. That is why yield farming has earned a somewhat negative reputation and many experts warn investors not to engage in this new form of digital asset investing.

Top DeFi Protocols

There are dozens of DeFi protocols that you can use to access investment opportunities in the decentralized finance market.

At Bitcoin Market Journal, we have composed a list of ten promising projects to help get you started in the world of DeFi.

NameDescriptionPlatform Launch YearBlockchainServicesTotal ($) Value Locked in DAppCommunity Following (Measured by Twitter Followers)Score
MakerThe Ethereum-powered MakerDAO is a decentralized Collateralized Debt Position (CDP) platform that supports the stablecoin DAI, which aims to maintain its value one-to-one with the US dollar. Users can open a Collateralized Debt Position (CDP) by locking up ether (ETH) or other Ethereum assets as collateral to receive DAI as debt against the locked up assets. Interest payments are made using the MKR token, and the DAI and MKR paid are burnt once the CPD is closed out.2018EthereumBorrowing and Lending/Stablecoin2340000000709004.5
UniswapUniswap is a decentralized exchange on the Ethereum network that enables users to swiftly trade ERC20 tokens in an autonomous manner. It does so through an algorithm that matches trades based upon supply and demand in a liquidity pool, removing middlemen and intermediaries.2018EthereumToken Exchange/Lending30500000001390004.5
AaveAave, formerly known as ETHLend, is an Ethereum-powered, decentralized peer-to-peer marketplace for borrowing and lending digital assets. The peer-to-peer lending platform enables borrowers and lenders to agree on the terms of a loan that is then executed using smart contracts. 2017EthereumBorrowing and Lending1180000000753004.5
CompoundCompound Finance is an Ethereum-based, open-source money markets protocol that enables users to borrow or lend against collateral. Anyone can take part in Compound's liquidity pool and can start to earn interest on their digital asset holdings. The interest rates adjust according to the supply and demand on the platform. Compound supports DAI, ETH, and USDC, among other digital assets. 2018EthereumBorrowing and Lending/Stablecoin1420000000519004.0
Curve FinanceCurve is a decentralized exchange protocol on which users can swap and trade Ethereum-based assets. It also focuses on providing liquidity to the markets using a market-making algorithm that automatically buys and sells assets whilst profiting from the bid and ask price spreads, which acts as the incentive for users to add their funds to the overall pool and earn interest.2020EthereumBorrowing and Lending/Decentralized Exchange855300000439003.5
WBTCA single WBTC is an ERC20 token with a value equal to one bitcoin. It was created so that BTC could exist and be traded on the Ethereum network, which also provides much greater liquidity to the DeFi ecosystem. It also enables users to stake BTC on interest yielding protocols.2019EthereumDeFi Token200000000042623.5
Harvest FinanceThe Harvest Finance platform is similar to yearn.finance in that it aggregates yield farming protocols and automatically switches between the most profitable options. Users of the platform form a pool of funds creating a super investor, and this solves the problem of constantly paying transaction fees when tokens are sent to other platforms.2020EthereumYield Farming909800000107003.0
SynthetixSynthetix is a token trading platform designed to allow for the tokenization of real world assets such as precious metals, stocks and currencies. Tokens created in this manner are known as “Synths”; once an asset is identified, a Synth copy of that “real-world” asset is can created in the Ethereum network. In doing so, Synthetix brings Wall Street-esque trading into the crypto world.2019EthereumDerviatives Trading685500000426003.0
yearn.financeThe Yearn.Finance Protocol is an aggregator that aims to maximize earnings from yield farming platforms that leverage stablecoins. It does so by automatically switching between lending platforms as one becomes more profitable than the other. It does not however, change the actual token initially deposited.2020EthereumBorrowing and Lending/Yielding Farming369600000497003.0
RenVMRenVM is a platform that brings creates interoperability between blockchain, meaning that assets such as bitcoin can exist on other blockchains, such as Ethereum. In essence, it is a custodian service as when you send BTC to the platform for instance, RenVM will then mint renBTC with as an ERC20 token with a 1:1 ratio to that deposit.2020EthereumCross-Chain Protocol for DeFi/DApps356100100274003.0

The Risks of Investing in DeFi

Walking a tighrope.

Decentralized finance applications enable investors to seamlessly earn interest on their digital asset holdings as well as providing an array of trustless trading, investing, and hedging solutions.

For experienced digital asset investors who are looking for the next high-risk, high-reward market trend, there is plenty to choose from in the DeFi markets.

However, as with all types of investing, the DeFi markets are far from risk-free. If anything, DeFi investing can be classified as highly risky, especially as you move away from the handful of established and thoroughly audited protocols to newer applications and platforms.

Essentially, there are four main DeFi risks:

  1. Code Risk
  2. Market Risk
  3. Centralization Risk
  4. Regulatory Risk

Arguably, the biggest risk for DeFi investors is potential vulnerabilities in the code of live protocols that could be exploited, thus leading to a loss of user funds and/or a sharp decline in the protocol token’s value.

The market risk faced when holding DeFi tokens is much higher than when holding established digital assets, such as bitcoin (BTC) or ether (ETH), as they are less liquid and typically only have a single use case. In combination with a lack of liquidity, DeFi tokens are thus as risky as investments can come.

Centralization risk is another factor that DeFi investors should be aware of. Ironically, many DeFi applications rely on centralized services – such as Oracles for price information – to provide their services. Should any of these third-party services experience downtime or a hack, this could adversely affect your DeFi investment position.

Finally, there is regulatory risk. For now, decentralized financial applications have not gained much regulator attention. However, as the market went from de facto non-existent a year ago to a $14 billion market today, regulators are starting to take notice. As digital assets become a more regulated industry globally, we can expect DeFi regulations to follow. Strict regulations may affect your DeFi returns.

Is DeFi A Bubble?

The hot DeFi trend in 2020 was without the shadow of a doubt yield farming.

Is Defi on Huobi?

Newly launched, unaudited (and, for some reason, often food-themed) DeFi applications emerged, offering 1,000+ percent yields only to find an error in the code collapsing the price or an anonymous developer leaving with a large share of issued tokens.

For anyone who has followed the SushiSwap saga, the Yearn hack, or the Harvest Finance token theft knows that liquidity mining on insecure protocols and investing in DeFi tokens is more likely than not a fleeting sensation, moved more by greed than the desire to create lasting financial innovation.

However, that does not mean that the technological strides that are being made in the DeFi industry are not poised to make their mark on the future of finance.

While the yield farming hype moved fast into bubble territory, the broader DeFi market is starting to mature with the aim of bringing accessible, next-generation financial services to the world.

The Takeaway

Decentralized finance has the potential to break down the barriers of the legacy financial system and provide internet-native banking services to the world. However, it will take time for the industry to mature to a level where bankless financial services will be secure and frictionless enough for the entire world to benefit.

Until then, the DeFi markets are reserved for tech-savvy digital asset investors who are comfortable interacting with smart contracts and taking on a substantial level of risk to generate above-average returns.

Further Reading:

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