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What Are Stablecoins, and How Do They Work?

To combat high volatility and increase participation in a larger community, crypto projects are incorporating price stability directly into their digital assets, bringing about a whole new subset of cryptocurrencies in stablecoins. 

As their name suggests, stablecoins are intended to be volatility-free (or close to it) coins that don’t fluctuate in price compared to fiat currencies such as the U.S. dollar. To fully understand the potential of stablecoins and how they work in tandem with more volatile cryptocurrencies, we need to dive a little deeper.

what-are-stablecoins
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What is a stablecoin?

A stablecoin is a type of cryptocurrency whose value ties to another “stable” asset like the U.S. dollar, euro, or gold. Stablecoins, by nature, are intended not to fluctuate.

Most popular cryptocurrencies, on the other hand, are volatile. Investors can’t rely on them to make longer-term transactions because one bitcoin has one value today and another tomorrow. For example, the value of one ether may be enough to buy a candy bar today, but the same ether may be equivalent to the price of a house in three months. It could also be the other way around if the value decreases. This means that volatile cryptocurrencies may not be the best means of payment 

Stablecoins offer an alternative option by reducing this volatility, making them more suitable for regular use. Borderless payments, low transaction fees, self-custody, and a combination of conventional fiat currency stability with digital asset flexibility make stablecoins appealing. To understand why, we must first know how stablecoins work.

Is Bitcoin a stablecoin?

Bitcoin (BTC) is not a stablecoin. Stablecoins aim to maintain a stable value through fiat currencies or other assets like gold. Bitcoin’s value is volatile in comparison. To learn more about Bitcoin click here

What can we do with stablecoins?

Stablecoins seem to be a promising asset on paper, but what can we do with them? Are they practical enough for real-life use? The answer is yes. Here are a few ways we can use stablecoins to earn interest and transfer money:

  • Store value: Stablecoins can be used similar to a bank account as their value remains more consistent than the asset they are pegged to. 
  • Trade assets: Stablecoins are easy to transfer and don’t require a bank account. Instead, we can use a crypto wallet to send money worldwide, including in countries where the local currency is unstable.
  • Earn interest: We can lend out our stablecoins through various platforms and earn interest on them. Stablecoin’s interest rates can be higher than traditional savings accounts, generating higher returns as DeFi cuts out the middleman. It should be noted that higher the interest usually correlates to higher risk.
  • Transfer money at low costs: Users don’t need to pay large transfer fees to send money. With stablecoins they can transfer money to whoever they want instantaneously.
  • Send money internationally: Low transaction fees and quick processing mean that one doesn’t have to wait to send or receive money across borders. Stablecoins offer a fast and affordable way to send money globally without hassle. For example, they can send $200 in stablecoins for less than one cent, compared to the global average charge of $12 through traditional methods.

How do stablecoins help as a hedge against inflation?

Traditional fiat currencies are prone to inflation, especially in developing countries. On the contrary, currencies like the US dollar or the euro are more resistant to inflation. Stablecoins like Tether and USDC are pegged to the US dollar, making them a great hedge against inflation. For example, individuals can exchange their money for stablecoins and get access to US dollar inflation, allowing their money to maintain more of its value.

As a result, stablecoins enable users to enter the gateway to global financial prosperity. Any individual with internet access can use stablecoins to transact daily. Cross-border payments allow users to participate in the global economy.

What are the types of stablecoins?

Stablecoins come in various types. Each employs a mechanism to stabilize their value. Fiat-backed stablecoins aim to maintain a reserve ratio of 1:1 with its respective currency. For example, Tether is pegged to the US dollar at a 1:1 ratio, meaning that one unit of tether equals one unit of the US dollar and the market cap of tether should be backed 1:1 with assets. ​​

A central bank digital currency (CBDC) is an electronic version of a fiat currency. The key difference between cryptocurrencies and CBDCs is that the latter is government-backed and issued by a country’s central bank. CBDCs are tied to the value of the issuing government. 

However, stablecoins are not risk-free. Some may go over the intended 1:1 ratio, while others may go under. In fact, even Tether’s value dropped below $1 in early 2022, despite being the world’s largest stablecoin by market cap.

Let’s look at the different types of stablecoins to understand how they’re backed:

  • Fiat-collateralized stablecoins – Fiat-collateralized stablecoins keep a reserve of a fiat currency like the US dollar as collateral to ensure the value of a stablecoin remains stable. When the price goes down, they use reserves to buy back the stablecoin until the peg is restored.
  • Commodity-backed stablecoins – Commodity-backed stablecoins use collateral such as precious metals like gold and silver or commodities such as crude oil.
  • Crypto-collateralized stablecoins – Crypto-collateralized stablecoins tie to other cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin or Ether. Reserve cryptocurrencies can be volatile, so their reserves must exceed the market cap of the stablecoin, leading to over-collateralization to ensure sound economic design.
  • Algorithmic stablecoins – Algorithmic stablecoins use algorithms and economic design to maintain a consistent market value. These stablecoins are unproven and of highest risk today, and many have seen their values go to zero, destroying billions of dollars of value.

What are the most popular stablecoins?

Now that we’ve understood the different types of stablecoins and how they work, it’s time to look at the most popular stablecoins available on the market.

Tether (USDT)

With a market capitalization of around $65 billion, Tether is the world’s most popular fiat-backed stablecoin. It was also the first stablecoin on the crypto market and has the highest number of global transactions, making it the most liquid stablecoin. There have been accusations that USDT is not backed 1:1 like they claim, although this is yet to be proven.

USD Coin (USDC)

As the name suggests, USD Coin ties to the value of the US dollar. It is a fiat-collateralized stablecoin. This means one can buy one USDC for $1 or redeem one USDC for $1 at any given time. At the time of writing, a total of 55.8 billion USD Coins are in global circulation.

Binance USD (BUSD)

Currently the third-largest stablecoin by market cap at $17.5 billion, Binance USD is a fiat-backed stablecoin project initiated by the crypto exchange platform Binance in collaboration with Paxos. BUSD maintains a 1:1 ratio with the US dollar and is approved by the New York State Department of Financial Services (NYDFS).

Dai (DAI)

MakerDAO launched Dai on the Ethereum blockchain in 2017. Dai, a cryptocurrency-backed stablecoin, uses ether (the cryptocurrency on Ethereum’s platform) as backing, while its value ties to the US dollar. Unlike other stablecoins, DAI is decentralized and uses smart contracts and incentives as the mechanism to maintain its peg.

TrueUSD (TUSD)

TrustToken’s TUSD is a fiat-collateralized stablecoin that exists on the Ethereum blockchain. Each TUSD token currently maintains a 1:1 ratio with the US dollar. Users can mint and redeem TUSD tokens on TrustToken's website.

TerraUSD (UST)

TerraUSD (UST) is a prominent example of an algorithmic stablecoin. TerraUSD's founder—Terraform Labs—used advanced algorithms to keep the stablecoin’s value as close to $1 as possible. It did this by tying its value to a volatile cryptocurrency called LUNA and depending on network arbitrageurs who would buy when price was below $1 and sell when above $1.

However, the algorithm was unable to sustain TerraUSD's value. The stablecoin's value fell sharply after remaining close to its 1:1 ratio for over a year, leading to Terra's collapse.

The collapse shook the cryptocurrency world, with the world’s largest digital currencies feeling TerraUSD’s knock on effect. Terraform Labs’ founder Do Kwon intends to revive the fallen stablecoin, although the fruition of a potential comeback is yet to be seen.

What are the risks of stablecoins?

Stablecoins may seem like the best of both worlds. However, they carry their own risks.

  • Depegging: Stablecoins aim to maintain a constant value backed by a fiat currency. Depegged stablecoins refer to stablecoins that fall from their intended value. Luna is the largest example of this.
  • Regulatory risks: Stablecoins, despite being pegged to fiat currencies, are still  decentralized assets and are susceptible to regulatory risks. For example, Meta, the parent company of Facebook, initially planned to launch its own stablecoin, called Diem, in 2020. However, the company canceled the launch due to concerns and backlash from financial regulators. 
  • Some lack transparency: Ideally, currency reserves would back stablecoins with cash or other secure investments. However, without any oversight, it's difficult to know whether stablecoins receive as much support as they claim to. A lack of backing could lead to a dire situation like TerraUSD's collapse, in turn affecting the entire crypto market.
  • Inflation of pegged assets: While stablecoins are meant to shield from inflation, they still inflate at the rate of their pegged assets. For example, if the US dollar’s inflation rate is more than 9%, the price of the asset increases, meaning what somebody could buy for $100 some time ago would now cost $109. A proposed solution to this is flatcoins, whose value would be backed by a basket of goods, thus not inflating. Although flatcoins are yet to be implemented, they could, one day, be the largest medium of exchange in the world.

Ready to invest?

Buying stablecoins is the gateway to most marketplaces. Rather than watching the fiat currency value fluctuate while deciding on the next trade, stablecoins offer a way to ensure an investment holds roughly the same value between trades. While this is a great shelter from volatility, it’s upside is capped at that of the pegged asset. Users may be protected from sharp decreases in value for the most part, but they can’t expect much in the way of increased returns, either.

Worldcoin, a new cryptocurrency but not a stablecoin, aims to give every human on Earth a free share without compromising privacy. At Worldcoin, we aim to increase individual empowerment and equality of opportunity globally. Subscribe to our blog for more news and information on the world of cryptocurrency!

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