A “stablecoin” is a type of cryptocurrency whose value is tied to an outside asset, such as the U.S. dollar or gold, to stabilize the price.
Cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and Ethereum offer a number of benefits, and one of the most fundamental is not requiring trust in an intermediary institution to send payments, which opens up their use to anyone around the globe. But one key drawback is that cryptocurrencies’ prices are unpredictable and have a tendency to fluctuate, sometimes wildly.
This makes them hard for everyday people to use. Generally, people expect to be able to know how much their money will be worth a week from now, both for their security and their livelihood.
Cryptocurrency’s unpredictability comes in contrast to the generally stable prices of fiat money, such as U.S. dollars, or other assets, such as gold. Values of currencies like the dollar do change gradually over time, but the day-to-day changes are often more drastic for cryptocurrencies, where the value jumps up and down regularly.
The following graph shows the price of bitcoin vs. the U.S. dollar (USD) compared to another fiat currency, the Canadian dollar (CAD), to see how much each currency fluctuates in relation.
Price fluctuations for bitcoin (black line) tend to be much greater than those of the U.S. dollar (orange line). (For purposes of this comparison, both are normalized to the Canadian dollar, or CAD.)
Stablecoins were worth more than $10 billion as of May 2020. In countries like Brazil, many people are turning to stablecoins as an alternative to their national currencies in uncertain economic conditions. Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, some people are using stablecoins to avoid new internet censorship in a tumultuous political climate.
Stablecoins in a nutshell
Stablecoins try to tackle price fluctuations by tying the value of cryptocurrencies to other more stable assets – usually fiat. Fiat is the government-issued currency we’re all used to using on a day-to-day basis, such dollars and euros, and it tends to stay stable over time.
Usually the entity behind the stablecoin will set up a “reserve” where it securely stores the asset backing the stablecoin – for example, $1 million in an old-fashioned bank (the kind with branches and tellers and ATMs in the lobby) to back up one million units of the stablecoin.
This is how a digital stablecoin and a real-world asset are tied together. The money in the reserve serves as “collateral” for the stablecoin. A user can theoretically redeem one unit of a stablecoin for one unit of the asset that backs it.
There is a more complex type of stablecoin that is collateralized by other cryptocurrencies rather than fiat yet still is engineered to track a mainstream asset like the dollar.
Maker, perhaps the most famous stablecoin issuer that uses this mechanism, accomplishes this with the help of Collateralized Debt Positions (CDPs), which lock up a user’s cryptocurrency collateral. Then, once the smart contract knows the collateral is secured, a user can use it to borrow freshly minted dai, the stablecoin.
A third variety of stablecoin, known as an algorithmic stablecoin, isn’t collateralized at all; instead, coins are either burned or created to keep the coin’s value in line with the target price. Say the coin drops from the target price of $1 to $0.75. The algorithm will automatically destroy a swathe of the coins to introduce more scarcity, pushing up the price of the stablecoin.
This type of stablecoin is much less popular so far. One of the most popular stablecoins following this model, basis, shut down in 2018 due to regulatory concerns.
Types of stablecoin collateral
Using this framework, stablecoins come in a range of flavors, and the collateralized stablecoins use a variety of types of assets as backing:
- Fiat: Fiat is the most common collateral for stablecoins. The U.S. dollar is the most popular among fiat currencies, but companies are exploring stablecoins pegged to other fiat currencies as well, such as bilira, which is pegged to the Turkish lira.
- Precious metals: Some cryptocurrencies are tied to the value of precious metals such as gold or silver.
- Cryptocurrencies: Some stablecoins even use other cryptocurrencies, such as ether, the native token of the Ethereum network, as collateral.
What are the most popular stablecoins?
To give you a taste of the experimentation happening in stablecoin land, let’s run through some of the most popular stablecoins.
Diem (formerly known as Libra) is a stablecoin in the works, originally conceived by the powerful, worldwide social media platform Facebook. While libra hasn’t launched, it’s had more psychological impact than any other stablecoin.
Governments, notably China’s, are now exploring their own crypto-inspired digital currencies, in part because they’re worried Diem would be a competitive threat since Facebook is a multinational company with billions of users from across the globe.
Initially, the Diem Association, the consortium set up by Facebook, said Diem would be backed by a “basket” of currencies, including the U.S. dollar and the euro. But due to global regulatory concerns, the association has since backed off from its ambitious original vision. Instead, it is now planning to focus on developing multiple stablecoins, each backed by a separate national currency.
Its first stablecoin, the Diem dollar, is expected to launch as early as January 2021.
Tether (USDT) is one of the oldest stablecoins, launched in 2014, and is the most popular to this day. It’s currently one of the most valuable cryptocurrencies overall by market capitalization.
The primary use case for USDT is moving money between exchanges quickly to take advantage of arbitrage opportunities when the price of cryptocurrencies differs on two exchanges; traders can make money on this discrepancy. But it has found other applications: Chinese importers stationed in Russia have also used USDT to send millions of dollars worth of value across the border, bypassing strict capital controls in China.
Tether Ltd., the company that issues USDT, is embroiled in a legal battle with the New York Attorney General concerning providing financial documents that would illuminate its financial relationship with the cryptocurrency exchange Bitfinex.
Launched in 2018, USD Coin is a stablecoin managed jointly by the cryptocurrency firms Circle and Coinbase through the Centre consortium.
Like tether, USD Coin is pegged to the U.S. dollar. It is the second-largest stablecoin by market capitalization.
Running on the MakerDAO protocol, dai is a stablecoin on the Ethereum blockchain. Created in 2015, dai is pegged to the U.S. dollar and backed by ether, the token behind Ethereum.
Unlike other stablecoins, MakerDAO intends for dai to be decentralized, meaning there’s no central authority trusted with control of the system. Rather, Ethereum smart contracts – which encode rules that can’t be changed – have this job instead.
There are still problems with this innovative model, however; for example, if the smart contracts underpinning MakerDAO don’t work exactly as anticipated. Indeed, they were gamed earlier this year, leading to losses of $8 million.
Do stablecoins have any drawbacks?
There are a few drawbacks to stablecoins to keep in mind. Because of the way stablecoins are typically set up, they have different pain points than other cryptocurrencies.
Crypto publication The Capital, for instance, argues that while stablecoins are called “stable,” they are only as stable as the asset that the stablecoin is tied to. Traditionally, the price of the dollar is very stable, but if that were to change, any fluctuations in the value of the dollar would be reflected in the stablecoin.
If the reserves are stored with a bank or some other third party, another vulnerability is counterparty risk. This boils down to the question: Does the entity really have the collateral it claims to have? This has been a question frequently posed to Tether, for instance, without clear answers. Tether has yet to provide a full open audit of its reserves.
Many stablecoin issuers don’t provide transparency about where their reserves are held, which can help a user determine how risky the stablecoin is to invest in. Knowing where their money is held, users can see if a stablecoin is operating without a license in the region where the reserves are held. If the stablecoin operators don’t have a license, a regulator could potentially freeze the stablecoin’s underlying funds, for instance.
Further, it’s possible the reserves backing a stablecoin could turn out to be insufficient to redeem every unit, potentially shaking confidence in the coin.
Cryptocurrencies were created to replace intermediary companies that are typically trusted with a user’s money. By their nature, intermediaries have control over that money; for example, they are typically able to stop a transaction from occurring. Some stablecoins add the ability to stop transactions back into the mix.
USD Coin openly has a back door to stop payments if coins are used in an illicit manner. Circle, one of the firms behind USD Coin, confirmed in July 2020 that it froze $100,000 of USD Coin at the behest of law enforcement.