What is DeFi?

Decentralized finance, or DeFi, is a catch-all term for financial products that live on decentralized networks like Ethereum. The basic idea of DeFi is to rely on smart contracts to automate financial products. The most widely used DeFi products currently are in the realm of borrowing and lending, trading, and derivatives.

Using DeFi apps, you can, for instance, deposit cryptocurrencies into a smart contract that entitles you to a certain yield. This is analogous to a high-yield savings account with a traditional bank, although both the yields and risks involved are typically much higher. The principle, however, is the same in that, behind the scenes, your capital is generally pooled together with the capital provided by others and put towards a variety of yield-generating strategies. For example, it may be lent out to other market participants at interest. The difference from "traditional finance" (aka 'Tradfi') is, since the system is built on smart contracts, it not only functions in a transparent and verifiable manner, but much of the process is automated. For example, your share of the profits made from the yield-generating strategies are automatically distributed to you in the ratio and at the intervals written into the contract. This reduces some of the overhead in the traditional finance industry, potentially reducing the cost of capital and enabling more equitable profit distribution amongst participants. Importantly, because decentralized networks like Ethereum are permissionless, anyone with a wallet address is free to contribute capital and benefit from the yield it generates. In other words, anyone can become, in effect, a bank that earns interest by lending out money.

Another example of a DeFi application is decentralized exchange. Here you can trade one digital asset for another without handing over either asset to a centralized exchange service provider. Instead, the smart contracts that define the protocol move the assets around transparently and in accordance with the logic of the code. Critically, the system also incentivizes the creation of liquidity on trading pairs. This is important because, for an exchange platform to be useful, deep liquidity is required. Decentralized exchange protocols generally incentivize liquidity creation by rewarding liquidity providers (those who deposit assets into the smart contracts that define the protocol) with a percentage of the fees generated when assets in a given pair are traded. In this way, such protocols enable "crowd-sourced" liquidity, a phenomenon that has the potential to drive efficiencies in markets. From the end-users’ perspective, decentralized exchange is an improvement on the status quo because it eliminates the counter-party risk associated with centralized exchanges. In other words, you don't need to rely on a centralized exchange provider to take custody of your cryptoassets if you want to trade them. Another key benefit (as with all DeFi products) is, again, the fact that anyone can participate. Decentralized exchange is 'permissionless,' meaning it doesn't require you to provide your identity and you can participate even if you live in a country with limited financial infrastructure.

Automated risk management

To illustrate how smart contracts help to automate yield-generating strategies while managing risk, let's look in more detail at smart contract-based lending. In this example we will use the Ethereum network, although any decentralized network with robust smart contract functionality works similarly. Imagine you send 1 ETH to a smart contract that holds your 1 ETH as collateral in exchange for a US-Dollar loan. To minimize risk on the loan, the smart contract might be written such that an over-collateralization ratio of 2:1 is required. In other words, you can only borrow up to a maximum of 0.5 ETH worth of dollars. If, for example, the value of ETH falls relative to the dollar below a certain threshold, you'll be required to either pay back the loan (plus interest) or add more ETH to the smart contract, thereby bringing back the collateralization ratio to a safe level. Failing to do either, would, at a certain point, result in the liquidation of your ETH. In other words, if the USD-value of ETH falls far enough while you do nothing, the smart contract will take your ETH, leaving you with only the US dollars you borrowed.

Given the deterministic nature of smart contracts, we can see that yield-generating strategies based on over-collateralized loans and governed by smart contracts have the potential to carry effectively no risk.

Read more: Learn how to connect to DApps in the Bitcoin.com Wallet and start using DeFi

Is decentralized finance riskier than traditional finance?

In theory, DeFi has the potential to be less risky than traditional finance, where human error and fraud create significant risk. Unfortunately, human error still very much exists in the realm of DeFi, and so does fraud.

Regarding human error, the deterministic nature of smart contracts combines with the fact that they are open source to make them vulnerable to exploits (at least at first). Hackers can and do find errors or loopholes in smart contracts that allow them to steal money, in many cases without technically even committing a crime. On the other hand, the open-source nature of DeFi protocols means that the longer a protocol exists in the wild, the more battle tested and secure it becomes as the community of developers fix bugs and patch vulnerabilities in response to attacks. Just as open source software in general tends to be more robust than closed source equivalents, open source DeFi apps will likely become safer over time.

As for fraud, the lack of regulation and the anonymous nature of DeFi significantly increases its prevalence in the space. While consumers of traditional financial products can rely on rules and regulations that are backed up by the threat of legal enforcement, this is often not the case in the DeFi realm — at least practically speaking. Entrepreneurs can write and deploy any kind of smart contract they want and it's entirely up to the consumer to judge whether the contract is 'safe.' Safety in this context may refer to both the exploitability of the contract's code as well as to the yield-generating strategies deployed. This, perhaps unsurprisingly, has led to a number of so-called 'rug-pulls' in the DeFi space. Here, what typically happens is a core group of anonymous insiders either retain control over what is advertised as a decentralized project or personally own a majority of the project's native tokens (many DeFi projects issue their own token, the use cases for which most often include governance and yield payments). When enough value has flowed into the system - often thanks to the dangling of extremely high yield rates for early participants - the insiders simply trade their native tokens for something else and walk away from the project entirely. This almost invariably results in total abandonment of the project and corresponding collapse of the native token price. Another potential scenario is that the insiders deliberately leave a “bug” in the code, allowing funds to be siphoned off to themselves while claiming they too were the victims of an exploit.

Ready to start your DeFi journey? Get the multichain Bitcoin.com Wallet where you can connect to Ethereum DApps via WalletConnect. Or head over to Bitcoin.com’s Verse DEX (fully audited by 0x Guard: see report), where you can trade permissionlessly, earn a share of fees, and more.

Was this helpful?

Related guides

Start from here →
What is Ethereum?

Understand Ethereum's key characteristics.

Read this article →
What is ETH used for?

Understand the function and utility of ETH.

Read this article →
Who created Ethereum?

Understand the origin and early history of the Ethereum protocol.

Read this article →
How was ETH initially distributed?

Learn about the 2014 crowdsale, the initial distribution of ether (ETH), and why it's important.

Read this article →
What's a smart contract?

Get the basics on the "software" that runs on decentralized networks.

Read this article →
What are ERC-20 tokens?

Learn the basics of the Ethereum token standard, what ERC-20 tokens are used for, and how they work.

Read this article →
What's a DApp?

Understand the basics of Decentralized Applications (DApps) on decentralized networks; their features and their current limitations.

Read this article →
What is Ethereum's monetary policy?

Learn about the issuance rate of ETH and how it's governed.

Read this article →
What is ETH gas and how do fees work in Ethereum?

Learn about the unit for measuring transaction fees in Ethereum, get details on the Ethereum fee market, and discover how to customize the fees you pay.

Read this article →
What is EIP 1559?

Understand how EIP 1559 overhauls the fee market in Ethereum and what it means for ETH's circulating supply.

Read this article →
How does governance work in Ethereum?

Why governance is needed, Ethereum governance in practice, the concept of credible neutrality, and more.

Read this article →
What is Ethereum 2.0?

Learn about Ethereum's attempt to solve the blockchain trilemma with a move to Proof of Stake, sharding, and more.

Read this article →
How to buy ETH

Learn how to buy ETH and hold it securely in a digital wallet you control.

Read this article →
How to create an Ethereum wallet

Creating an Ethereum wallet is as easy as installing software on your mobile device or laptop/desktop.

Read this article →
Start from here →
Start investing safely with the Bitcoin.com Wallet
Over wallets created so far

Everything you need to buy, sell, trade, and invest your Bitcoin and cryptocurrency securely

Bitcoin.com in your inbox

A weekly rundown of the news that matters, plus educational resources and updates on products & services that support economic freedom