Stablecoin

What Is a Stablecoin?

A stablecoin is a class of cryptocurrencies that attempt to offer price stability and are backed by a reserve asset. Stablecoins have gained traction as they attempt to offer the best of both worlds—the instant processing and security or privacy of payments of cryptocurrencies, and the volatility-free stable valuations of fiat currencies.

Key Takeaways

  • Stablecoins are cryptocurrencies that attempt to peg their market value to some external reference.
  • Stablecoins may be pegged to a currency like the U.S. dollar or to a commodity's price such as gold.
  • Stablecoins achieve their price stability via collateralization (backing) or through algorithmic mechanisms of buying and selling the reference asset or its derivatives.

Understanding Stablecoins

Though Bitcoin (BTCUSD) remains the most popular cryptocurrency, it tends to suffer from high volatility in its valuations. For instance, it rose from the level of around $5,000 at the height of the coronavirus pandemic sell-off in March 2020 to almost $65,000 in April 2021 before plunging by over 50% to around $30,000 in June 2021. The price has since exceeded $65,000 in November 2021. Even its intraday price swings can be wild; it is common to see the cryptocurrency moving in excess of 10% in either direction within a span of a few hours.

This kind of short-term volatility makes Bitcoin and other popular cryptocurrencies unsuitable for everyday use by the public. Essentially, a currency should act as a medium of monetary exchange and a mode of storage of monetary value, and its value should remain relatively stable over longer time horizons. Users will refrain from adopting it if they are not sure of its purchasing power tomorrow.

Ideally, a crypto coin should maintain its purchasing power and have the lowest possible inflation, sufficient enough to encourage spending the tokens instead of saving them. Stablecoins provide a solution for achieving this ideal behavior.

Inflation is the decline of the purchasing power of a given currency over time. A quantitative estimate of the rate at which the decline in purchasing power occurs can be reflected in the increase of the average price level of a basket of selected goods and services in an economy over some period of time.

Types of Stablecoins

There is some appeal to fiat currencies (e.g. the US dollar), where the currency is backed by the full faith and credit of the government that issued it. This offers some price stability for fiat currencies. However, this also means that many fiats are inherently controlled by their central banks. Stablecoins attempt to bridge this gap between fiat currencies and cryptocurrencies. There are three categories of stablecoins, all based on their working mechanisms.

Fiat-Collateralized Stablecoins

Fiat-collateralized stablecoins maintain a fiat currency reserve, like the U.S. dollar, as collateral to issue a suitable number of crypto coins. Other forms of collateral can include precious metals like gold or silver, as well as commodities like oil, but most of the present-day fiat-collateralized stablecoins use dollar reserves.

Such reserves are maintained by independent custodians and are regularly audited for adherence to the necessary compliance. Tether (USDTUSD) and TrueUSD (TUSDUSD) are popular crypto coins that have a value equivalent to that of a single U.S. dollar and are backed by dollar deposits.

As of November 2021, USDT is the fourth-largest cryptocurrency by market capitalization, worth more than $73 billion.

Crypto-Collateralized Stablecoins

Crypto-collateralized stablecoins are backed by other cryptocurrencies. Because the reserve cryptocurrency may also be prone to high volatility, such stablecoins are over-collateralized—that is, a larger number of cryptocurrency tokens is maintained as a reserve for issuing a lower number of stablecoins.

For example, $2,000 worth of ether may be held as reserves for issuing $1,000 worth of crypto-backed stablecoins, which accommodates up to 50% of swings in reserve currency (ether). More frequent audits and monitoring add to price stability. Backed by Ethereum (ETHUSD), MakerDAO's DAI (DAIUSD) is pegged against the U.S. dollar and allows for using a basket of crypto assets as a reserve.

Non-Collateralized (Algorithmic) Stablecoins

Non-collateralized stablecoins don't use any reserve but include a working mechanism, like that of a central bank, to retain a stable price. For instance, the dollar-pegged basecoin uses a consensus mechanism to increase or decrease the supply of tokens on a need basis.

Such actions are similar to a central bank printing banknotes to maintain valuations of the fiat currency. It can be achieved by implementing a smart contract on a decentralized platform that can run in an autonomous manner.

A smart contract is a self-executing contract with the terms of the agreement between buyer and seller directly written into lines of code. The code and the agreements contained therein exist across a distributed, decentralized blockchain network. The code controls the execution, and transactions are trackable and irreversible.

Stablecoin Regulation

Stablecoins continue to come under scrutiny by regulators, given the size of their $130 billion market and potential impact on the broader financial system. In October 2021, the International Organization of Securities Commissions (IOSCO) said that stablecoins should be regulated as financial market infrastructure alongside payment systems and clearinghouses. The proposed rules would specifically target stablecoins that regulators deem systemically important and that have the ability to disrupt payment and settlement transactions.

Moreover, politicians have increased calls for greater stablecoin oversight. For instance, in September 2021, Senator Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyoming) called for regular audits of stablecoin issuers, while others back bank-like regulations for the sector.

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  5. CoinDesk. "Pro-Crypto Senator Lummis Says Stablecoins Should Be Audited." Accessed Nov. 12, 2021.