Wassim Alsindi

Parallel Industries

Reaching Everyone: Are stablecoins the answer to Bitcoin’s volatility?

It depends on the question. For those most in need of value preservation and freedom of transaction, the risks likely far outweigh the benefits.

This is a brief aside from our “Reaching Everyone” article series on In The Mesh, by Matt ฿ (@MattoshiN) and Wassim Alsindi (@parallelind) on the use of Bitcoin and the technology stack built atop it to assist those living under oppressive regimes or in conflict zones, and those seeking to flee them. Read part 1 and part 2.

There is no doubt that volatility in BTC-fiat crossrates make external measures of cryptocurrency value vary wildly, and obviously downside risk is not helpful especially with those in straightened circumstances, or even with their lives on the line. On the other hand things like this might happen:

https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/7804100/isis-war-chest-bitcoin-crash-investment-millions-cryptocurrency/

Could so-called “stablecoins” be the answer to the volatility dilemma? Well, stable with respect to what, and how to maintain price consistency? Broadly, there are three current models:

1) Central issuing authority. Confidence in value is faith-based with censorship risk — such as JPM’s upcoming offering. Additional risks with undercollaterisation.

2) Asset-backed with trusted custodian. Price maintenance depends on faith in the underlying assets and transparency of auditing. Examples include Tether or gold-backed products.

3) Algorithmic mechanisms seem like worthy but very much unproven experiments. Until tested at scale and over significant periods of time, these are no place for people on the margins to place their wealth. DAI and Basis (RIP) are examples of this approach. Additional risks arise from regulatory burden, if the stability process is deemed to be security-like and centralised oracles reporting external prices. Front-running may be an additional issue with DAI as MKR (MakerDAO’s parent token) holders would be diluted in the event of a peg failure, with more sophisticated holders jumping ship at first signs of trouble. This may resemble the Cantillon Effect playing out backwards?

There is considerable base protocol and smart contract risk for platform-issued tokens such as stablecoins, especially as the current predominant stablecoin token “hosting” platform Ethereum prepares to undergo transition to ETH1.X and ETH2.0 with some combination of ProgPoW, hybrid PoW/PoS, PoS, the bewilderingly diverse Plasma family of state channels, new virtual machines, sharding and/or state rent. Contrast this with Bitcoin’s conservative development philosophy and aversion to rapid changes in network function largely pushing innovation into “second layers” such as Lightning Network and sidechains.

Using a Stablecoin today largely redistributes risk from price volatility to technological, regulatory and/or custodial uncertainty, not necessarily a wise trade for someone with few other options compared to physical cash. Privacy is also an issued with almost all these systems, which either require some element of AML/KYC or use networks with inherently poor privacy.

Historically, no stablecoin has ever defended its peg over a period of years. Stablecoins are still an experiment, no place to deal with matters of life or death. As the crowded retinue of competing fiat-pegged products grows ever larger, more concepts from traditional finance such as demurrage, censorability, discounts on par or interest are being proposed or experimented with.

Even major currencies such as the British Pound have failed to maintain agreed trading ranges against well resourced adversaries, what chance a smart contract or non-native blockchain token with limited resources has to balance price, supply and demand through the various phases of cryptocurrency’s wild market cycles remains to be seen.

The BitShares USD stablecoin BitUSD has among the longest history of any attempt. Source https://coinmarketcap.com/currencies/bitusd/

For people outside the most developed nations, or those whose human rights are under risk stablecoins do not deliver the goods, at least in the present day.

Wassim Alsindi directs research at independent laboratory Parallel Industries, analysing cryptocurrency networks from data-driven and human perspectives. Find him at www.pllel.com and @parallelind on Twitter.
Matt B is a writer and content strategist in the cryptocurrency space with a particular interest in Bitcoin and privacy technology. He can be reached at itsmattbit.ch and @MattoshiN on Twitter.

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