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The dream of a low-friction financial system is just the beginning

The Economist | Sep 18, 2021

DeFi and Alice in wonderland - The dream of a low-friction financial system is just the beginning

Although the terminology is intimidating (fees are “gas”; the main currency is ether, and title deeds over digital assets are known as NFTs), the basic activities taking place on DeFi are familiar. These include trading on exchanges and issuing loans and taking deposits through self-executing agreements called smart contracts. One yardstick of activity is the value of digital instruments being used as collateral: from almost nothing in early 2018 it has reached $90bn. Another is the value of transactions that Ethereum is verifying. In the second quarter this reached $2.5trn, around the same sum as Visa processes and equivalent to a sixth of the activity on Nasdaq, a stock exchange.

The dream of a low-friction financial system is just the beginning.

DeFi is spreading to more ambitious terrain. MetaMask, a DeFi wallet with more than 10m users, acts as a digital identity. To enter a decentralised “metaverse”, a looking-glass world with shops run by its users, you link your wallet to a cartoonish avatar who roams around. These digital worlds will become the subject of intensifying competition as more spending shifts online. Big tech firms could impose huge taxes on these mini-economies: imagine Apple’s App Store charging fees, or Facebook selling your avatar’s intimate secrets. A better alternative might be decentralised networks that host applications and are run mutually by users. DeFi could provide payments and property rights.

See:  The Intersection of Ecommerce and NFTs: How NFT Technology is Changing DeFi

Crypto-enthusiasts see a Utopia. But there is a long way to go before DeFi is as reliable as, say, JPMorgan Chase or PayPal. Some problems are prosaic. A common criticism is that blockchain platforms do not scale easily and that the computers they harness consume wasteful amounts of electricity. But Ethereum is a self-improvement machine. When it is in high demand the fees it charges for verification can climb, encouraging developers to work on minimising the intensity with which they use it. There will be new versions of Ethereum; other, better blockchains could one day replace it.

Yet DeFi also raises questions about how a virtual economy with its own norms interacts with the real world.

One worry is the lack of an external anchor of value. Cryptocurrencies are no different from the dollar, in that they rely on people having a shared expectation of their utility. However, conventional money is also backed by states with a monopoly on force and central banks that are lenders of last resort. Without these, DeFi will be vulnerable to panics. Contract enforcement outside the virtual world is also a concern. A blockchain contract may say you own a house but only the police can enforce an eviction.

Governance and accountability in DeFi-land are rudimentary.

A sequence of large irrevocable transactions that humans cannot override could be dangerous, especially as coding errors are inevitable.

See:  WEF: Decentralized Finance: (DeFi) Policy-Maker Toolkit

Money-laundering has thrived in the ungoverned grey zone of services lying between Ethereum and the banking system. Despite the claims of decentralisation, some programmers and app owners hold disproportionate sway over the DeFi system. And a malign actor could even gain control over a majority of the computers that run a blockchain.

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NCFA Jan 2018 resize - The dream of a low-friction financial system is just the beginning The National Crowdfunding & Fintech Association (NCFA Canada) is a financial innovation ecosystem that provides education, market intelligence, industry stewardship, networking and funding opportunities and services to thousands of community members and works closely with industry, government, partners and affiliates to create a vibrant and innovative fintech and funding industry in Canada. Decentralized and distributed, NCFA is engaged with global stakeholders and helps incubate projects and investment in fintech, alternative finance, crowdfunding, peer-to-peer finance, payments, digital assets and tokens, blockchain, cryptocurrency, regtech, and insurtech sectors. Join Canada's Fintech & Funding Community today FREE! Or become a contributing member and get perks. For more information, please visit: www.ncfacanada.org

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