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Decentralized finance (DeFi) seems a lot more complicated than it actually is. DeFi is not a company or a cryptocurrency — it’s an attempt to recreate the existing financial system on the blockchain. This is done through smart contracts, which are programs that live on the blockchain. Just like how Bitcoin is immutable and trustless, so are smart contracts. This allows for functions like peer-to-peer lending markets, streaming services and decentralized exchanges to be built into smart contract applications.

The DeFi industry offers stablecoins, lending, exchanges and other products and services found in the traditional banking industry, but with a catch. The difference lies in DeFi’s distinct technological advantages that allow for superior products that were never before possible.

How Decentralized Finance Works

Recent advancements in blockchain technology have sparked a new wave of online financial services without a central authority for the 1st time. DeFi is an umbrella term for any decentralized financial product. The majority of DeFi products rely on Ethereum and its turing-complete programming language Solidity. However, new entrants into the industry are giving Ethereum a run for its money –– namely Solana, Avalanche and Binance Smart Chain.

Central banks employ thousands of people, incurring huge expenses to offer products and services. Banks also need to rely on the legal system to handle disputes. 

DeFi replaces employees and the legal system with Ethereum smart contracts on the blockchain, drastically reducing operating expenses in order to provide products many deem superior to their traditional bank counterparts. 

Smart contracts are legal or business agreements written in code (Ethereum’s Solidity programming language). 

Smart contracts typically replace the need for trust with the use of collateral. By requiring collateral, parties are incentivized to behave properly without anyone watching over them. Smart contracts hold collateral in escrow and can handle defaults and successes automatically for negligible cost. 

Smart contracts are stored and executed on a blockchain for safekeeping. Since these blockchains are decentralized, no one entity can control the financial functions that are executed on-chain.

BZ

Pro Tip:

Many traders will use MetaMask with DeFi applications, but software wallets aren’t as secure as hardware wallets. To best secure your investments use a hardware wallet. Most hardware wallets aren’t DeFi compatible, so some traders use MetaMask like their “leather wallet” and their hardware wallet like their “bank account.” However, Ledger’s hardware wallet can connect directly to DeFi applications, making it the most secure and useful hardware wallet on the market.

DeFi Applications

New decentralized financial applications are being developed every day as venture capitalists are eager to hop on the new wave of open finance. 

Currently, stablecoins, lending, exchanges and non-fungible tokens (NFTs) are the largest markets in the DeFi space. Here’s Benzinga’s breakdown of these DeFi markets. 

Decentralized Exchanges

Decentralized exchanges (DEX) allow the permissionless exchange of cryptocurrencies. DEXs use 1 of 2 methods to make a market: order books or liquidity pools.

Moreover, DeFi users can take advantage of a relatively new type of blockchain-based service referred to as DEX aggregators. Interestingly, these services are similar to travel booking websites. In the same way that these sites aggregate prices from hundreds of hotel, airlines and travel provider websites, DEX aggregators compare cryptocurrency prices and trading fees across several DEXs. A prime example of a DEX aggregator is 1inch – a protocol that provides traders with the lowest fees and best prices on their transaction.

get started securely through Webull’s website
Best For
Low Minimums
N/A
1 Minute Review

Webull, founded in 2017, is a mobile app-based brokerage that features commission-free stock and exchange-traded fund (ETF) trading. It’s regulated by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA).

Webull offers active traders technical indicators, economic calendars, ratings from research agencies, margin trading and short-selling. Webull’s trading platform is designed for intermediate and experienced traders, although beginning traders can also benefit.

Webull is widely considered one of the best Robinhood alternatives.

Best For
  • Active traders
  • Intermediate traders
Pros
  • No charges to open and maintain an account
  • No account maintenance fees or software platform fees
  • Intuitive trading platform with technical and fundamental analysis tools
Cons
  • Only offers 14 coins
get started securely through Exodus Wallet’s website
Best For
Staking Crypto + Earning Rewards
N/A
1 Minute Review

Founded in 2015, Exodus is a multiasset software wallet that removes the geek requirement and keeps design a priority to make cryptocurrency and digital assets easy for everyone. Available for desktop and mobile, Exodus allows users to secure, manage and exchange cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin (BTC), Ethereum (ETH) and more across an industry-leading 10,000-plus asset pairs from a beautiful, easy-to-use wallet. The noncustodial functionality is encrypted locally on users’ own devices, ensuring privacy, security and complete control over their wealth. Exodus is on a mission to empower half the world to exit the traditional finance system by 2030.

Best For
  • Newcomers to the cryptocurrency world
  • Ease of use
  • Trezor integration
Pros
  • Free
  • Huge selection of cryptocurrencies
  • Excellent 24/7 customer support
  • No personal info needed
Cons
  • FTX app not available on the mobile app
get started securely through SoFi’s website
Best For
Beginners
N/A
1 Minute Review

SoFi takes a modern approach to personal finance. It recently created buzz with the release of SoFi Crypto, a way to trade cryptocurrency on the app. The platform allows investors to familiarize themselves with crypto. It offers a high level of security, great customer support and an intuitive interface. However, it does have shortcomings with the number of cryptos offered and geographic restrictions.

Best For
  • Beginners
  • Centralization of your money
Pros
  • Charges low or no fees for some functions within the interface.
  • Relies on Coinbase, a very secure platform, to process transactions.
  • Presents a low barrier of entry — you only need $10 to start trading.
Cons
  • Currently only offers 28 coins.
get started securely through eToro’s website
Disclosure: eToro USA LLC; Investments are subject to market risk, including the possible loss of principal. Virtual currencies are highly volatile. Your capital is at risk.
Best For
Copy Trading
N/A
1 Minute Review

eToro is headquartered in Cyprus, England and Israel. A major eToro plus is its social trading operations, which allows new clients to copy trade the platform’s best performers. Its social trading features are top notch, but eToro loses points for its underwhelming research and customer service features.

Best For
  • Investors looking to CopyTrade other traders
  • Simple user interface
Pros
  • Several major cryptocurrencies and altcoins
  • Expansive network of social trading features
  • Large client base for new traders to imitate
Cons
  • Only 29 coins available
Invest In Crypto securely through Gemini Crypto’s website
Best For
New Investors
N/A
1 Minute Review

Gemini is a cryptocurrency exchange and custodian that offers investors access to over 100 coins and tokens. Founded in the US, Gemini is expanding globally, in particular into Europe and Asia. Offerings include both major cryptocurrency projects like Bitcoin and Ethereum, and smaller altcoins like Orchid and 0x.

Gemini is 1 of the only brokers with multiple platform options based on skill level. New investors will love the streamlined interface of Gemini’s mobile and web apps, while advanced investors might appreciate all the tools that come with ActiveTrader. 

In addition to a host of platform choices, Gemini users also have access to insured hot wallets to store tokens without worrying about digital asset theft. Learn more about what Gemini can do for you in our review.

Best For
  • New investors looking for a simple mobile and web app
  • Day traders looking to use technical analysis tools
  • Users looking for a 1-stop-shop to buy, sell and store all of their cryptos
Pros
  • Easy and quick signups — can get started in as little as a 5 minutes
  • Multitude of platforms to accommodate traders of all skill levels
  • Hot wallets include insurance to protect your from theft and hacking attempts
Cons
  • Charges both a commission and a convenience fee for users buying and selling through the desktop or mobile app
earn free crypto securely through Coinbase’s website
Best For
Coinbase Learn
N/A
1 Minute Review

Coinbase is one of the Internet’s largest cryptocurrency trading platforms. From Bitcoin to Litecoin or Basic Attention Token to Chainlink, Coinbase makes it exceptionally simple to buy and sell major cryptocurrency pairs. 

You can even earn cryptocurrency rewards through Coinbase’s unique Coinbase Earn feature. More advanced traders will love the Coinbase Pro platform, which offers more order types and enhanced functionality.

Though Coinbase doesn’t offer the most affordable pricing or the lowest fees, its simple platform is easy enough for complete beginners to master in as little as a single trade.

Best For
  • New cryptocurrency traders
  • Cryptocurrency traders interested in major pairs
  • Cryptocurrency traders interested in a simple platform
Pros
  • Simple platform is easy to operate
  • Comprehensive mobile app mirrors desktop functionality
  • Coinbase Earn feature rewards you with crypto for learning about available coins
Cons
  • Higher fees than competitors

Order Books

The order book method of exchange has been used by centralized finance (CeFi) for a long time. An order book provides the exchange of assets so long there is supply and demand at the same price point. This type of structure pairs buyers and sellers of each asset, and an investor can buy or sell an asset at the highest bid or lowest asking price.

Loopring and IDEX are the current largest Decentralized order book exchanges.

Liquidity Pools

Liquidity pools are the new way to make a market through what’s known as an Automated Market Maker (AMM). DeFi projects Uniswap, Kyber and Balancer are competing to become the leading liquidity pool DEX. Let’s take a look at Uniswap to see how a liquidity pool works. 

Uniswap runs on the Ethereum blockchain and facilitates the exchange of Ethereum-based tokens for a small fee (0.3%). However, users must also pay Ethereum gas fees, which is a major roadblock to the adoption of DeFi on Ethereum. Uniswap offers users the ability to exchange Ethereum-based cryptocurrencies instantly by tapping into its smart contract liquidity pools. 

These liquidity pools are funded by other users who earn the exchange fees for providing this liquidity. 

Lending

Decentralized lending offers higher interest rates than centralized lending with better security and anonymity. DeFi projects Aave and Compound are the leading lending protocols today.

On both platforms, borrowers must offer collateral greater than the amount they borrow into the loan smart contract. The smart contract safely holds collateral in escrow throughout the term of the loan, replacing the need for a trusted middle-man. 

Should the borrower default, the lender is automatically repaid the borrower’s collateral by the smart contract.

With this level of overcollaterization, Aave is able to offer 10% APY for certain stablecoin loans with no know-your-customer (KYC) required, a product truly unheard of in traditional finance. 

Stablecoins

A stablecoin is a cryptocurrency whose value is tied to another asset, most commonly the U.S. dollar. On January 4, 2021, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) officially allowed U.S. banks to conduct business using stablecoins. This marks a historic milestone for cryptocurrency acceptance, and an influx of cash is likely on the horizon. 

Tether, USD Coin and DAI are the biggest stablecoins to date. But, DAI is the only decentralized stablecoin of the 3, and the only 1 that is truly a DeFi product. Tether and USD Coin are both centralized and run by private companies. 

  • Tether. Tether was launched in 2014 and is the biggest stablecoin by market cap. Tether issues 1 of its USDT tokens for each dollar staked. USDT is not issued by smart contracts, but the central Tether is in charge of making sure each Tether is properly backed. It’s important to note that the Tether team is currently under investigation by the New York Attorney General for issuing more Tether than there is USD backing it. 
  • USD Coin. USD Coin (USDC) was created by Coinbase in response to the issues arising within Tether. Unlike Tether, USDC is voluntarily regulated by U.S. financial institutions. Coinbase has never supported Tether exchange on their platform, and now it aims to capitalize on Tether’s legal issues.  
  • Maker DAI. MakerDAO is a DeFi platform with its own stablecoin, DAI. DAI is different from USDT and USDC because it is not centralized. DAI is run entirely on Ethereum smart contracts, that issue 1 DAI for each dollar it holds in escrow. The DAI stablecoin is the favorite of the crypto community because it’s decentralized – meaning better security and no risk of inside fraud.

Cryptocurrency has grown faster than regulators have been able to keep up. New OCC guidelines allowing banks to use stablecoins signify wider acceptance to come in the near future. 

This leaves a lot of questions on the table. Which stablecoin will the banks adopt, and what happens if Tether gets shut down? 

Make sure to subscribe to the Benzinga Crypto newsletter to stay informed.

Non-Fungible Tokens

In 2017, a game called CryptoKitties clogged the Ethereum network for several days. 

A CryptoKitty is a virtual cat that has more in common with a bitcoin than a real cat. A crypto kitty is a token on a blockchain – just like Bitcoin, Ether or UNI – these tokens are attached to wallets, are liquid and store value. 

CryptoKitties’ explosion in popularity drove demand (and prices) for these virtual cats through the roof. CryptoKitties are expensive collectibles like limited edition baseball cards. Similar to baseball cards, each kitty is non-fungible, or unique.

CryptoKitties proved to the community that the concept of non-fungible tokens (NFTs) could really work to verify collectible digital assets. 

NFTs aren’t limited to digital cats. NFTs are currently taking over the billion-dollar art industry, and a new game called Decentraland aims to show how NFTs might even be used for virtual real estate.

By tokenizing non-fungible assets, they immediately become more liquid, and can even be used as collateral for loans. NFTs can store meta-data providing detailed information about the asset it represents. NFTs are typically Ethereum-based and exchanged on the Ethereum blockchain where their ownership history is securely stored forever. 

DeFi Investment Opportunities

DeFi products use smart contracts and blockchain technologies to offer special advantages over the traditional traditional banking industry.

The DeFi industry is still in its infancy, but already boasts some promising startups. Most DeFi projects use a proprietary cryptocurrency token to power their system. Should one of these DeFi startups create a hit product, demand for their token will increase, and so will its value.

The 2017 crypto bull run sparked a wave of new altcoins that typically were nothing more than elaborate pump-and-dump schemes with aesthetic webpages and plagiarized whitepapers. 

Now the majority of popular, high market cap altcoins are actually the tokens of the biggest and most promising DeFi projects. These tokens are volatile – even for crypto – so be careful, and don’t invest more than you’re willing to lose. 

Recommended lecture: 3 Digital Currency Challenges Faced By Central Banks

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