The Smart Way to Talk About DeFi's $22B

"TVL isn't the best indicator when ETH and all other crypto is green for weeks," one observer said of DeFi's recent growth.

AccessTimeIconJan 8, 2021 at 9:05 p.m. UTC
Updated Sep 14, 2021 at 10:53 a.m. UTC

Decentralized finance (DeFi), the sector of crypto that drove all the excitement this summer, isn't quite back to its old energy, but the lull is over.

"Raw DeFi numbers are at all-time highs, and they're not fake," Alameda Research founder Sam Bankman-Fried told CoinDesk in an email. "But in relative terms to the rest of crypto, they're down from their peak but up from their nadir."

From a casual glance, it can look like DeFi is stronger than it's ever been. Judged by the sector's favorite metric, total value locked (TVL), the sector has been adding about a billion dollars worth of additional value per day since the new year started – from $15.67 billion to $22.35 billion as of this writing. However, a lot of that growth has been driven by the simple fact of asset prices going up across the board.

"TVL isn't the best indicator when ETH and all other crypto is green for weeks," Jesse Walden, founder of the venture firm Variant, told CoinDesk in an email.

ETH, the asset that powers DeFi, traded at $737 on Jan. 1, rising to $1,182, as of this writing. 

In other words, ETH is up a bit over 60% and DeFi is up a bit over 40%.

DeFi will be booming again when a lot more assets get locked in there. It seems clear that most of the uptick in value can be attributed to asset price increases, but that's not the whole story. 

"Uniswap alone is settling around $1 billion daily, so I think the ecosystem is growing, no doubt," Walden noted.

Look to the stablecoins

A good way to baseline DeFi upticks is by checking action specifically in stablecoins because they don't tend to get skewed wildly by price volatility.

DeFi money market Compound kicked off the DeFi craze and yield farming on that application is still going strong. Its website makes it easy to check deposits over time.

Looking at the big three stablecoins – USDT, USDC and DAI – only USDT has really been inching up on Compound, but it also has by far the smallest deposits. 

Tether's stablecoin has risen from a mere $91.5 million on Jan. 1 to $146 million today. Meanwhile, DAI has basically hovered a bit above $1 billion and USDC has in the area of $800 million that whole time. Nothing very exciting happening there, which probably stands as something of a bellwether for the real action in the space.

Blockchain consultant Maya Zehavi agreed with the comments above. "My opinion is that DeFi just increased leverage in the system a bit, say 5%," she wrote via text message. "The rest is just price appreciation."

If it's not obvious for those who believe the rally is going to keep going, borrowing more of the rising asset can be a good way to lock in more gains. "In general, during [a] bull market, more users are collateralizing to borrow to leverage their positions on ETH," Stani Kulechov of the money market Aave (a protocol that turned one year old today) told CoinDesk over Telegram.

Kulechov shared data with CoinDesk that showed over $1.5 billion worth of new deposits on Aave versions 1 and 2 combined. By far the biggest intake has been in ETH itself, with more than $450 million in new ETH deposited into Aave in 2021 alone.

After all, once people have reached a position they believe they can afford, they might as well deposit it somewhere that it can earn just a little more while they wait for prices to moon. 

Pantera Capital partner Paul Veradittakit told CoinDesk via email that the investment firm is closing a lot of new deals in DeFi. 

"We believe that DeFi will drive the ecosystem forward and that's our thesis," he said. "Decentralized trading has eclipsed centralized trading periodically and will continue to grow proportionately while use cases around synthetic assets, algorithmic stablecoins and lending/borrow are very promising."


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