Stablecoin: How Firms Like Tether Print Fiat & What to Watch Out For

You may have heard about stablecoins but aren‘t quite sure how they work or whether they‘re a wise investment. This comprehensive guide will break down everything you need to know about stablecoins in plain language, including the risks and opportunities they present.

Introduction to Stablecoins

A stablecoin is a cryptocurrency designed to maintain a stable value rather than fluctuating wildly like Bitcoin or Ethereum. Stablecoins peg their market price to an external reference like the US dollar, precious metals, or other cryptocurrencies.

The goal is to harness the speed, security, and global accessibility of cryptocurrencies while reducing exposure to volatility. With prices linked to assets like fiat currency, stablecoin creators aim to achieve the "holy grail" of a digital asset with all the benefits of blockchain technology, but without the instability.

Stablecoins first emerged around 2014, and since then have ballooned into a $100+ billion dollar market segment. But this promising new asset also carries risks and criticisms you should understand before investing.

This in-depth guide will break down exactly how stablecoins work, pros and cons of different designs, and future outlooks. Let‘s dive in!

A Brief History of Stablecoins

Stablecoins emerged as a tool for traders who wanted to move between cryptocurrency positions without exposure to swings in crypto prices.

The first popular stablecoin, Tether (USDT), launched in 2014. It promised to peg each token to USD at a 1:1 ratio by maintaining adequate fiat reserves. Since then, other fiat-backed coins like USD Coin (USDC) and Binance USD (BUSD) have launched.

But fiat-backing requires users to trust the issuers are holding sufficient reserves. So decentralized alternatives like DAI emerged that use cryptoassets as collateral to maintain their pegs algorithmically.

The stablecoin market surged through the crypto bull market in 2017 and now totals over $116 billion in value across over 60 different stablecoins.

But this young market is still evolving. The future landscape depends on how innovation, regulations, and competition shape stablecoin adoption.

Why Do Stablecoins Exist? The Problem They Solve

You may be wondering – if I want price stability, why not just hold fiat currency? What‘s the point of interposing a stablecoin between dollars and cryptocurrencies?

Stablecoins aim to bridge the gap between the functionality of blockchain-based assets and stability of national currencies.

Key Benefits Stablecoins Uniquely Provide:

  • Reduce volatility risk – Transact in crypto without exposure to price volatility
  • Faster payments – Stablecoin payments settle in seconds vs days for bank transfers
  • Lower fees – Saving on remittances and cross-border payments
  • Decentralized – Access to open, transparent DeFi protocols
  • Interoperability – Seamless on/off ramps between crypto and fiat
  • Smart contracts – Underlying for payments built into smart contracts

For uses like trading, lending, remittances, and merchant payments, stablecoins can provide advantages over both fiat and normal cryptocurrencies.

Their rapid growth shows demand for their unique blend of advantages. But achieving stability and trust without centralization remains challenging.

Stablecoin Designs: How Do They Maintain $1 Pegs?

There are several different ways stablecoins maintain their pegs:

Fiat-Collateralized Stablecoins

Fiat-backed stablecoins like Tether and USDC peg their value by holding reserves of the reference fiat currency. For every 1 stablecoin issued, the issuer holds $1 in bank accounts to back it.

Examples: USDT, USDC, BUSD, TUSD

Pros: Simple to implement. Direct fiat backing provides stability.

Cons: Requires trusting central issuer to manage reserves responsibly. Slow to redeem.

Crypto-Collateralized Stablecoins

Crypto-collateralized stablecoins maintain their peg algorithmically using overcollateralized cryptoassets.

For example, DAI pegs to $1 but backs each DAI with >$1 worth of Ethereum. This provides decentralization but can be vulnerable to collateral price fluctuations.

Examples: DAI, sUSD, FRAX

Pros: Decentralized, transparent on blockchain

Cons: Vulnerable to drops in collateral asset prices

Algorithmic (Non-Collateralized)

Algorithmic stablecoins use built-in monetary policies enforced by smart contracts on the blockchain to control supply and maintain their pegs.

But they are the riskiest design and unproven at scale during periods of volatility.

Examples: Ampleforth, Basis Cash

Pros: No need for reserves or collateral

Cons: Untested long-term stability and functionality

Type Examples Pros Cons
Fiat-collateralized USDT, USDC Stability from reserves Centralized, slow redemption
Crypto-collateralized DAI Decentralized Collateral volatility
Algorithmic Ampleforth No collateral needed Unproven long-term

There are merits and risks to each approach, with no perfect solution yet that provides decentralization and perfect stability.

The Surging Stablecoin Market

The stablecoin market has exploded in 2021, surpassing $116 billion in total value. What‘s driving this growth?

  • Trading: Traders use stablecoins as a parking spot when nervous about volatility.
  • Lending & borrowing: Stablecoins allow cheap loans in DeFi protocols.
  • Payments: Stablecoins enable fast, global payment transfers.
  • On/off ramps: Moving between national currencies and crypto holdings.

Some stats showing their surging adoption:

  • Stablecoin market cap up 500% since January 2020
  • Trading volume exceeds $65 billion per day
  • Monthly transactions exceeded $1 trillion in March 2021
  • Tether accounts for 62% market share
Metric Value
Total stablecoin market cap >$116 billion
Daily trading volume >$65 billion
Monthly transactions >$1 trillion per month
Largest stablecoin Tether ($73 billion)

While stablecoins comprise a fraction of crypto‘s $2 trillion total market cap, their growth has outpaced most cryptoassets as financial institutions warm to their usefulness.

Uses and Applications of Stablecoins

Stablecoins provide several advantages over regular cryptocurrency and fiat for the following applications:

– Trading and storing value – Traders use stablecoins like USDT or USDC to hold value during times of high volatility. This avoids having to cash out to fiat.

– Lending & borrowing – The ability to take out decentralized loans with stablecoin collateral is a major DeFi use case.

– Cross-border payments – Stablecoins facilitate faster and cheaper remittance and payment transfers across borders.

– On/off ramps – Traders rely on stablecoins as an on-ramp and off-ramp between fiat currencies and cryptocurrency holdings due to their stability.

– Merchant payments – Payment processors can use stablecoin rails to allow merchants to accept crypto payments without volatility risk.

– Smart contracts – Smart contracts executing payments rely on stability and ubiquity of fiat-pegged stablecoins like USDT.

As blockchain adoption increases, expect stablecoin use cases to expand, especially for financial applications needing exchange stability and blockchain functionality simultaneously.

Stablecoin Risks and Challenges

While the stablecoin market is surging, these assets come with risks and limitations to be aware of.

Limited Transparency and Auditing

Fiat-backed stablecoins have faced questions about their true levels of collateralization and whether reserves match circulating token supply.

For example, Tether paid an $18.5 million fine in 2021 and admitted to not always maintaining sufficient fiat reserves despite claims of 1:1 backing. This makes evaluating stability challenges. Complete, routine audits are essential.

Technical Risk Factors

Technical risks like bugs in underlying collateral smart contracts, security vulnerabilities, and oracle failures present upside risks even to crypto-collateralized stablecoins.

For example, DAI briefly lost its USD peg in 2020 due to extreme market volatility highlighting the difficulty of maintaining stability amidst crisis.

Long-Term Uncertainty

Stablecoins are a new and experimental cryptocurrency design. It remains to be seen how various stablecoin regimes hold up under prolonged periods of volatility or rapid adoption.

Regulatory Uncertainty

Global regulators are still assessing how to categorize and regulate stablecoins under existing financial frameworks. Unclear regulations present an ongoing risk.

For example, China has banned issuance of yuan-pegged stablecoins in favor of their own upcoming CBDC. Other countries could follow with restrictions.

Competition from CBDCs

Major governments are piloting central bank digital currencies (CBDCs) which could make privately-issued stablecoins redundant or redundant or illegal if CBDCs gain traction.

Countries like China, Sweden, and the Bahamas have already launched pilots or live CBDCs that threaten to disrupt the stablecoin landscape.

Stablecoins vs. CBDCs

Central bank digital currencies (CBDCs) are digital assets issued and backed by national governments. Think of it like a digital dollar or digital euro.

How do CBDCs compare to private stablecoins like USDT or USDC?

Attribute CBDCs Stablecoins
Issuer Central bank Private company
Backing asset State fiat currency Varies (fiat/crypto)
Monetary policy control Full control None
Transparency High (government) Varies
Privacy Low Medium
Interoperability Limited High
Availability Limited High

CBDCs provide the benefits of digitization while maintaining government oversight over currency issuance. But availability may be limited, and innovation stagnated by bureaucracy.

Stablecoins provide interoperability and availability, but fall short on transparency and monetary policy control.

Many governments see CBDCs as granting them greater control over currency issuance versus private stablecoins.

Are Stablecoins Right for You? Risks and Rewards

Stablecoins can generate attractive yields when lent out on platforms like Compound or Aave. But they come with unique risks to consider.

Potential benefits:

  • Earn high interest rates on stablecoin savings and lending, often 5-10% APY or more. This beats traditional savings accounts.
  • Avoid exposure to crypto price volatility while still participating in decentralized finance.
  • Stable asset to hold during times of market uncertainty.

Risks to keep in mind

  • Stablecoin collapse or loss of peg could result in large losses.
  • Changes in regulations may restrict stablecoin viability.
  • Smart contract risks and cybersecurity threats.
  • Unproven long-term stability for newer algorithmic stablecoins.

Overall, stablecoins deserve consideration to generate yield while minimizing volatility. But thorough due diligence is required given the newness and risks associated with most stablecoin regimes.

Conclusion

While stablecoins come with unique capabilities and benefits, they also carry emerging risks as this new asset class evolves. But used properly, they can enhance returns and utility in your broader cryptocurrency portfolio.

This guide provided a comprehensive overview of stablecoin history, designs, uses, and risks to support you in making informed decisions. But this technology is constantly changing.

As with any cryptocurrency investment, sticking to principles of portfolio diversification and avoiding putting eggs all in one basket is wise. As regulations shift and new designs launch, there is no one stablecoin asset I can universally recommend.

But by deeply understanding the stablecoin landscape, you‘re now equipped to navigate this niche with eyes wide open to the risks and opportunities. I‘m excited to see how stablecoin adoption progresses in the coming years as blockchain cements itself in the financial system!

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