First Mover: Ethereum Gets Unplanned Stress Test as DeFi Fever Grows

The Ethereum blockchain's soaring gas prices don't seem to have deterred customers as DeFi usage grows and tests what the market can bear.

AccessTimeIconSep 11, 2020 at 1:36 p.m. UTC
Updated Sep 14, 2021 at 9:54 a.m. UTC

This column has written in recent weeks about the surprising possibility that cryptocurrency markets might have become the new home for capitalism, in an environment where central banks and governments are intervening deeply in markets while picking corporate winners via emergency aid. 

If anything, the ridiculousness of the recent weeks' saga involving the deliciously named startup protocol SushiSwap shows that not only are market signals alive and well in digital assets, but competition is, too. 

While from the outside these markets may seem like a den of rampant speculation, the innovative mania now taking place in the fast-growing arena of decentralized finance , known as DeFi, is providing a test of just how much the 11-year-old digital-asset markets can bear. 

The proving ground for most DeFi projects is Ethereum, the second-biggest blockchain, preferred by many developers for its facilitation of "programmable money" through "smart contracts" – bits of programming that stipulate conditions under which transactions occur, as well as any outputs.

The ultimate goal of these DeFi systems is to automate the functions of banks and other financial firms, making them less expensive, more efficient and maybe even fairer in their allocation of capital. Put another way, entrepreneurs are trying to make a buck by building things they hope people will use. 

DeFi applications have jammed up the Ethereum blockchain, roughly quadrupling median transaction fees, known as "gas," since the start of the year. But as the research firm Dapp Radar points out in a new report, the network's usage has continued to increase

Ethereum monthly transaction volumes, USD.
Ethereum monthly transaction volumes, USD.

Gambling applications appear to be getting crowded out, but activity has swelled on decentralized lending platforms like Aave and automated, network-based trading systems like Uniswap and Curve. Total transaction volumes reached nearly $25 billion in August, from less than $5 billion a month earlier in the year. 

"High Ethereum gas prices have not affected the DeFi ecosystem yet," the publication wrote in its "Dapp Ecosystem Report" for August. 

Nor have the elevated transaction fees sowed many doubts in the minds of investors. While prices for ether, the native token of the Ethereum blockchain, have retreated in recent weeks, they've still nearly tripled since the start of the year, to about $367. 

John Todaro, director of institutional research for the cryptocurrency-analysis firm TradeBlock, estimated this week in a report that daily fees collected on the Ethereum network have climbed to an average $5 million a day, implying an annual run rate of about $1.5 billion.

"Users have flocked to trading DeFi tokens as they have become the hottest new sector in the space," Todaro wrote. 

Shiv Malik, co-founder of the Intergenerational Foundation think tank, wrote Thursday in an op-ed for CoinDesk that a lot of the DeFi activity might just be "token speculation" and "manufactured out of nothing," with "no actual coffee under all that froth."  

But based on the recent data, the market appears to be working. And customers are apparently willing to pay. 

Ether median transaction fees (in green, right-hand scale), with ether price (in red, left-hand scale), both in USD.
Ether median transaction fees (in green, right-hand scale), with ether price (in red, left-hand scale), both in USD.

Bitcoin Watch

Bitcoin daily price chart.
Bitcoin daily price chart.

Bitcoin remains trapped in a narrow range of $10,000 to $10,500 for the seventh straight day with both bulls and bears unwilling to lead the price action.

  • Eventually, however, the range play is likely to end with a bullish breakout as the on-chain metrics continue to improve.
  • The cryptocurrency's hashrate rose to record highs above 140 exahashes per second earlier this week.
  • In addition, there is evidence of dip demand, particularly from small investors.
  • The number of "wholecoiners" or addresses holding at least 1 BTC have risen to a new life time high of 823,000 this week, according to data source Glassnode.
  • A move above $10,500 would imply an end of the pullback from the August high of $12,476 and signal a revival of the broader uptrend.
  • "Moving forward, should price stabilize above $10,500, which coincides with the 0.618 fib, a bullish continuation can be expected," according to analysts at Stack, a provider of cryptocurrency trackers and index funds.

– Omkar Godbole

Token Watch

Ethereum (ETH): Ether balances on exchanges have fallen to a seven-month low on centralized exchanges, potentially suggesting traders are using their tokens to make money from DeFi applications such as yield farming.   

SushiSwap (SUSHI): Co-founder of "vampire" protocol tells CoinDesk China his partners on project were "thinking about how to make fast money." 

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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; 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.