What Are DeFi Tokens?

Decentralized finance tokens provide crypto users with access to a number of bank-like services such as loans, lending and insurance.

AccessTimeIconNov 15, 2022 at 4:14 p.m. UTC
Updated Nov 16, 2022 at 6:19 p.m. UTC

DeFi tokens represent a diverse set of cryptocurrencies native to automated, decentralized platforms that operate using smart contracts. These provide users’ access to a suite of financial applications and services built on the blockchain.

Decentralized finance (DeFi) tokens command a $45 billion market cap, a relatively small proportion of the overall cryptocurrency market. That being said, it has become one of the fastest-growing sectors in the industry.

What are some top DeFi tokens?

Decentralized finance is an interconnected ecosystem of non-custodial financial protocols, platforms and services.

In first place is lido staked ether (SETH), which represents Ethereum that has been staked within staking protocol Lido, according to Coin Gecko’s list of DeFi tokens.

DAI, a USD-pegged stablecoin minted by MarkerDAO, is the second-largest DeFi token by market cap.

In third place is UNI, the native token of UniSwap, a decentralized exchange that runs on Ethereum.

It’s followed by Chainlink's LINK, the native token of the decentralized oracle network that feeds smart contracts with accurate, real-world data such as weather reports or price information.

Although cryptocurrency market trackers like CoinMarketCap and CoinGecko group all DeFi-related projects under the same category, they can be further differentiated based on the governance tokens some DeFi protocols offer.

What are governance tokens?

Most DeFi tokens are linked to DeFi protocols, which, in some instances, are governed almost entirely by their community of users.

To participate in the future decision-making processes of these types of DeFi platforms, users are required to purchase and hold what’s known as “governance tokens.” These tokens possess special rights and allow holders to vote on proposed changes to the platform. These votes are nominally binding on the developer team and their values are often proxies for confidence in the project.

Decentralized exchange Uniswap’s native token UNI is the largest governance token of its kind. Uniswap launched UNI in September 2020, airdropping 400 UNI tokens to each wallet address that had interacted with the protocol at least once before September 1 of that year.

As a general rule, users who hold more of a particular governance token have greater voting powers over those with fewer tokens. This is done under the assumption that those who are willing to invest more in a particular project are more likely to want it to succeed, and will therefore vote on the most appropriate proposals to achieve that goal.

Since Uniswap’s airdrop, many other protocols have also airdropped governance tokens to early adopters to encourage participation in the voting process. Governance tokens can also be earned through active contribution to the protocols, for example by providing liquidity to a protocol’s asset pools.

Other major governance tokens include:

  • PancakeSwap (CAKE)
  • Aave (AAVE)
  • Maker (MKR)

Governance tokens are also speculative assets, just like most other cryptocurrencies. You can trade them on centralized or decentralized exchanges without partaking in any governance decisions, and their prices typically fluctuate like any other volatile asset.

Some newly issued governance tokens may be non-tradable until the token holders decide they can be transferred between wallets.

Where to buy DeFi tokens?

DeFi tokens might sound like tokens you can only buy on DeFi protocols, but that’s not the case at all. Most centralized cryptocurrency exchanges like Coinbase and Binance list major DeFi tokens. These can be traded or invested in just asd you would any other type of cryptocurrency.

In order to participate in protocol governance, you will need to hold the tokens in a DeFi wallet and connect the wallet to the governance platform used by that particular protocol, such as Snapshot. It’s worth noting, participation in governance does not incur any gas fees.

What are the risks of DeFi tokens?

Even if you buy DeFi tokens through platforms that aren’t DeFi-based, such as centralized exchanges like Coinbase, you’ll still be exposed to DeFi risks associated with the protocols those tokens represent.

DeFi tokens may suffer significant losses when the underlying protocol suffers a critical vulnerability. In October 2021, the price of COMP, lending protocol Compound’s governance token, plunged when millions of dollars were drained from its treasury after a fault in the code was exploited by a hacker.

Like other cryptocurrencies, changes in the project or the team may also shift market sentiments. In March 2022, DeFi tokens associated with Andre Cronje’s project fell sharply when he and a colleague announced their departure from the industry.

Is there a way to gain exposure to all major DeFi tokens?

If you want to invest in DeFi and but you’re not sure in which token to invest, you might want to consider a DeFi token index fund, such as The DeFi Pulse Index (DPI) offered by Index Coop. The token tracks the performance of DeFi tokens in its basket, such as UNI, AAVE and MKR.

However, remember that neither The DeFi Pulse Index (DPI) nor individual DeFi tokens will necessarily track the long-term success of DeFi – just as shares on the stock market can take a life on their own independent from a company’s success.

Moreover, the risks of investing in DeFi also apply to index funds. Indexed Finance, another index fund protocol, suffered a $16 million exploit in October 2021.

This article was originally published on Nov 15, 2022 at 4:14 p.m. UTC


Please note that our privacy policy, terms of use, cookies, and do not sell my personal information has been updated.

CoinDesk is an award-winning media outlet that covers the cryptocurrency industry. Its journalists abide by a strict set of editorial policies. In November 2023, CoinDesk was acquired by the Bullish group, owner of Bullish, a regulated, digital assets exchange. The Bullish group is majority-owned by Block.one; both companies have interests in a variety of blockchain and digital asset businesses and significant holdings of digital assets, including bitcoin. CoinDesk operates as an independent subsidiary with an editorial committee to protect journalistic independence. CoinDesk employees, including journalists, may receive options in the Bullish group as part of their compensation.

Ekin Genç

Ekin Genç has written for Bloomberg Businessweek, EUobserver, Motherboard, and Decrypt.

Learn more about Consensus 2024, CoinDesk's longest-running and most influential event that brings together all sides of crypto, blockchain and Web3. Head to consensus.coindesk.com to register and buy your pass now.