After 10 years, Bitcoin lives on, but the ecosystem still suffers from a critical weakness. Obtaining and maintaining a bank account that can process and clear USD is very difficult for any crypto-related business. The outcrop of this weakness is the industry’s clamour for all things Stablecoin.
Stablecoins fall into two camps. One subsect, of which Tether is the leader, are thinly- disguised USD money market funds. The other subsect are “coins” (Maker / Dai, Haven, Basecoin, etc.) that attempt to do an end runaround holding actual USD by using fancy math and pseudo behavioural economics.
The ongoing Tether melodrama highlights the difficulties of obtaining and maintaining USD banking facilities. Traders want to trade Bitcoin and other shitcoins vs. the USD. The crypto- to-crypto pairs are liquid at times, but we all still think in dollar terms. Therefore, exchanges that can offer these pairs will outperform their peers who cannot.
Tether is novel because it is a USD money market token transferred across the Bitcoin and Ethereum blockchain. The Tether organisation supposedly holds sufficient USD such that 1 Tether = 1 USD for those who can create and redeem Tether. Exchanges that previously only offered crypto-to-crypto pairs could offer a Coin to USD pair and externalise the hassle of dealing with banks onto Tether.
The demand was there, but the hard part is where to stash the cash. Tether acquired and lost banking relationships in a variety of jurisdictions. Others looking in at the Tether saga, concluded that using their connections they could offer a better alternative. Now we have Tether clones offered by various exchanges such as Gemini, Circle, and itBit.
Money Market Funds In All But Name
Money market funds are extremely important to a well functioning banking system. Individuals and institutions park their excess cash on a short-term basis and pick up yield. The money market funds invest in highly-liquid debt instruments. Short-dated government bonds, commercial paper issued by creditworthy corporates and short-dated bank loans, are some of the securities that a money market fund will hold.
Money market funds aim to be very low risk. Their most important aspect is they maintain a par value at all times, such that 1 unit = 1 USD. During the 2008 GFC, some money market funds were at risk of “breaking the buck.” Low risk debt became high risk; liquidity dried up, and investors rushed for the exits.
Today, Tether and clones thereof promise there is 1 USD for one coin in a bank somewhere. Some promoters are able to name their banking partners, some are not. The level of transparency pales in comparison to traditional money market funds.
The other key difference in the crypto sphere is these Stablecoins do not pay interest. The real profit driver of money market Stablecoins is their net interest margin. Why go through all the hassle of hosting USD banking for the crypto ecosystem if there wasn’t a massive future profit potential?
As interest rates rise, that becomes pure profit to the Stablecoin operator. Unscrupulous operators will claim to hold USD cash, while investing in riskier debt instruments. The worst scallywags will pull a Jon Corzine, lever up, and purchase the dodgiest credits to be had.
If you hold any of these money market Stablecoins, you must ask the following:
- Who is the banking partner?
- What types of debt instruments, if any, is the fund allowed to hold?
- Can you as an ordinary individual create and redeem at par, and how long does that process take?
Wannabe Central Bankers
Another group of promoters asked the question, can you create a coin pegged to the dollar without holding any dollars as a backstop?
The substitute for physical dollars is math, behavioural economics, and cryptocurrencies. The reason why these projects need a shit-ton of non-dilutive suckers’ cash is because when shit hits the fan and their shitcoin trades less than par, the promoter must spend hard dollars, Bitcoin, or Ether to restore the peg.
Many of these projects wish to create a rules-based digital central banker; however, all they have done is obfusticate the need for physical cash by using complicated and boring whitepapers.
The central fact is that they are raising funds to act as the buyer of last resort. Otherwise, there is no need for hundreds of millions of dollars worth of investor money into any of these projects. If the math and behavioral modeling goes to plan, the coin should slowly accrue AUM and over time the peg should hold.
I challenge any project to return all the money they raised, and launch their coin purely based on its mathematical merits. I highly doubt I will have any takers.
I bet there are crypto George Soros imitators licking their lips at the chance to break the peg of these coins at the opportune moment. It will be glorious to watch.
Gresham’s law will hold. Money market Stablecoins with honest and transparent operators will accrue the vast majority of the AUM. Their wannabe central banker cousins will flounder under the weight of pseudoscience and hubris.