Cryptocurrencies are great for gambling, but they don’t free our money from big central banks


The dream that decentralized finance – or “DeFi” – could free the monetary system from the clutches of governments and banks has launched 20,000 cryptocurrencies.

But with 2022 proving to be more of a crypto nightmare – including for the vaunted “stablecoins” that held the most promise as rivals to central bank-issued currencies – questions now arise as to whether DeFi really has a stake. coming.

There are predictions that the cryptocurrency market, having lost more than half of its value in the first six months of 2022, could crash further – or be on the verge of rebounding. This speaks to the fact that crypto is great for gambling, but still lousy as a usable currency. It also lacks other useful attributes.

To assess the prospects for DeFi, it is useful to consider how finance became centralized in the first place.

Origins of money

Money is a feature of increasingly sophisticated human networks. When we lived in bands of hunter-gatherers, we hardly needed it. An informal tally of favors owed could be kept.

With the greater complexity of settled communities, in which people specialize in activities that match their skills and preferences, the barter system becomes the norm.

But barter required a double coincidence of needs. Someone who had too much food and wanted help building a house had to find a hungry builder. They then had to haggle over how many hours of work constituted a fair exchange for a meal.

So “money” was invented.

Money could be shells or a useful storable good. It could be a count of debts recorded safely somewhere (the first forms of writing, dating from 3000 BC, were cuneiform financial documents). Then came man-made tokens, which led to coins rare metals.

So-called “spike money”, a hybrid between weeding tools used for barter and stylized objects used as money, appeared in ancient China around 3,000 years ago.
Davidhartill/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

The origins of the bank

Money meant that people could save the fruits of their labor and loan them to others. But bringing lenders together with borrowers and assuring lenders that borrowers would repay was a challenge. This is why banks have developed.

Banks did not just issue convenient currency in the form of coins and notes. They also provided four basic banking services:

  • grouping: by gathering lots of small deposits, they could make big loans

  • diversification: by lending to a range of borrowers, a default mattered much less

  • risk assessment: specialized skills in reliability assessment reduced payment defaults

  • maturity transformation: they could offer loans for longer periods than most depositors wanted to keep their money in the bank.

The oldest bank still in operation today is that of Italy Monte dei Paschi from Sienafounded in 1472.

The headquarters of Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, in Siena, Italy.
The headquarters of Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, in Siena, Italy.

Solve problems with banks

But private banks with their own currencies were not a stable system. So-called “bank runs” occurred when depositors lost faith in a bank and sought to withdraw their funds. When a bank was unable to repay all requested notes or deposits, panic ensued.

Bank runs were often contagious. People had a hard time distinguishing whether a bank had an idiosyncratic problem (like a fraudulent manager) or suffered from a general problem (like an economic downturn leading to bad debts). A race on one bank would often trigger races on the others.

Police maintain order during a run at the Adolf Mandel Bank in New York, February 16, 1912.
Police maintain order during a run at the Adolf Mandel Bank in New York, February 16, 1912.
Everett Collection/Shutterstock

In the 20th century, most countries solved these problems by having a currency of issue owned by the central bank of the state and by regulating private banks to guarantee depositors their solvency. These regulations required banks to keep a minimum proportion of their assets available for withdrawals and to purchase deposit insurance.

The movement for decentralized finance

This process of banking centralization, however, was not universally applauded. Libertarians are wary of the system’s reliance on government-issued monopolies and licensed banks. They hate banks almost as much as governments. They see centralized finance as both inefficient and coercive.

Their dream: decentralized (or disintermediated) finance, allowing direct transactions, without the need for banking intermediaries. By removing the ‘middleman’, they have been rhetoric, transaction costs will be lower and the power of the state over individuals will be limited.

With the internet and blockchain technology, these dreams have launched more than 20,000 cryptocurrencieswith the first, and still the greatest, be bitcoin.

A Bitcoin conference in San Francisco in 2019.
A Bitcoin conference in San Francisco in 2019.

The “illusion of decentralization”

But as the massive losses in cryptocurrency markets over the past few months demonstrate, DeFi has yet to prove itself to be a viable alternative to centralized banking. It is still unclear how the four banking services discussed above can be provided without trusted financial intermediaries.

In effect, according to economists with the Bank for International Settlements (the central bank of central banks):

While the primary vision of DeFi proponents is intermediation without centralized entities, we argue that some form of centralization is inevitable. There is therefore an “illusion of decentralization”.

Few uses other than speculation

As BRI economists note, decentralized finance still has little use in the real economy. Above all, it facilitated speculation. But what attracts speculators – wildly fluctuating prices – makes bad money.

A salutary lesson comes from the experience of two (former) top ten cryptocurrencies, TerraUSD and its stablemate Luna. TerraUSD was supposed to be a “stablecoin”, with its value set at 1 USD. This was true until the beginning of May. At the end of May, it was trading at less than 3 US cents. During the same period, the price of Luna went from $82 at 0.02 US cents.

These examples illustrate how cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, devoid of any fundamental valueare speculative bets.

Read more: What is the fundamental value of Bitcoin? It’s a good question

So central bank currencies still have no rivals for day-to-day activities of buying and selling things, and are still much safer stores of value than crypto, even with inflation eroding their power. of purchase.


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