So, uh, not sure if you’ve looked out the window at all today … but Ethereum (and DeFi and NFTs) might be on fire.
After last month’s $40 billion crash of the Terra blockchain ecosystem, a long list of decentralized finance (DeFi) protocols are facing renewed scrutiny this week from investors who believe the music has stopped for crypto products with risky – and in some cases, outright nonexistent – fundamentals.
The “number go up” party is over, retail investors are getting wiped out and billions in losses have been reported across big name balance sheets – fomenting fears that some of the biggest names in DeFi will be forced to liquidate their assets and dump on the market, pushing prices down even further.
Amid the turmoil, Lido Finance’s staked ether (stETH) – an Ethereum-based token representing ETH “staked” on Ethereum’s proof-of-stake Beacon Chain, is being closely watched. stETH, while not exactly “pegged” to the price of actual ETH, has traditionally traded at around the same price because stETH represents a 1:1 claim on ETH staked on the Beacon Chain.
Today, stETH – which powers an increasingly large segment of DeFi’s borrowing, lending and casino-lite economy – is trading roughly 7% lower than the price of ETH. For those who held or borrowed stETH on the assumption that it and ETH are synonymous, this is a big haircut.
The stETH price drop has fueled some worries on Twitter and elsewhere that Lido is “the next Terra.” What if stETH, which represents around 33% of all staked ether (or around $5 billion), were to drop to zero?
Fortunately, such worries aren’t grounded in actual understanding of how stETH works under the hood.
In this week’s newsletter, we’ll talk a bit about what’s going on in the markets and what it means for stETH and Ethereum as a whole.
What the heck is going on?
Decentralized finance, which was born on Ethereum and then skyrocketed in popularity with the DeFi summer of 2020, set out to provide users with financial tools outside of the reach of regulators and centralized financial institutions. Coded smart contracts – not written contracts or company-controlled servers – would allow users to trade and transact without intermediaries.
Over time, DeFi has grown into a behemoth undergirding the entire crypto economy. But as DeFi success stories like Maker and Uniswap have provided new paradigms for users to borrow, lend and swap digital assets, high-leverage experiments like Olympus and Terra – which promised high yields to users in exchange for their faith in untested investment models – have crashed and burned.
As Shaurya Malwa, my colleague on CoinDesk’s Markets desk, explained, “Liquidation refers to when an exchange forcefully closes a trader’s leveraged position due to a partial or total loss of the trader’s initial margin. It happens when a trader is unable to meet the margin requirements for a leveraged position (fails to have sufficient funds to keep the trade open).”
A primary catalyst for this week’s liquidation chaos appears to have been massive sell-offs from Celsius – an investment product that allows users to easily deposit funds in exchange for market-leading yields. Behind the scenes, Celsius was able to offer high yearly returns up to around 20% by deploying user tokens into myriad DeFi protocols. Celsius would reward depositors with the profits it earned from these protocols, and it would shave off a percentage for itself.
Celsius was a crypto unicorn – raising $400 million in October from investors who believed it had the potential to revolutionize finance (and profit handsomely) by expanding consumer access to DeFi. It now faces criticism that its fund managers behaved like degens (crypto-speak for “degenerates”), swayed by the same eye-popping returns that pooled retailers into uncertain bets like the ill-fated Terra project.
Celsius and Terra
One of the primary destinations for Celsius’ funds was Anchor – the lending platform that provided users up to 20% per year for deposits of Terra’s dollar-pegged UST stablecoin. The Block reported in May that Celsius deposited around $500 million into Anchor, which it quickly withdrew as Terra started to wobble. While its money was parked in Anchor, Celsius took some of the 20% yield for itself, and then built the rest of the yield into the interest it handed back to depositors.
Though Celsius reportedly withdrew from Anchor before UST imploded, the firm’s one-time involvement with the ill-fated Terra project – combined with a broader cooling (and now, crashing) of DeFi markets – has fueled suspicion that Celsius’ DeFi investments may have declined in value so much that the platform no longer has enough money to pay back its depositors.
The insolvency narrative seemed especially likely on Sunday, when Celsius sent an email to users informing them that it would be pausing all swaps, transfers and withdrawals in an effort to ensure it would be able to honor its commitments moving forward.
Moreover, a wave of recent sell-offs from Celsius suggests some market players that loaned out money to the platforms are now asking for that money back – something one would expect to see during a bear market. It appears likely that, in order to pay off its lenders, Celsius has been forced to sell off some of its largest positions. One of those positions was in stETH.
According to blockchain data, Celsius has nearly $500 million of Lido staked ether (stETH) locked up as collateral in stablecoin loans. It’s possible they have more elsewhere in their treasury.
The attention on stETH this month stems from the fact that it is no longer trading around 1:1 for ETH. Traditionally, ETH and stETH have traded around parity because each stETH represents a direct claim on ETH that Lido, a decentralized protocol, has staked on the Beacon Chain on behalf of its users.
The catch is that while Lido will happily hand out 1 stETH in exchange for 1 ETH, it does not yet allow users to pull their ETH back out of the protocol. This comes down to a limitation with Ethereum itself: ETH staked on the Beacon Chain will be impossible to withdraw until an update following Ethereum’s “Merge” into a proof-of-stake network (today, Ethereum continues to operate using the more energy-intensive proof-of-work consensus mechanism pioneered by Bitcoin).
The main point of a “liquid staking” solution like Lido was to provide users a way to stake, secure the network and earn interest for doing so without losing the ability to use and trade staked assets. (It also allows users to participate in staking without the need to put up 32 ETH — which is what’s required if you are setting up a node by yourself.)
With so much stETH held by Celsius, there’s some fear that the troubled firm may be forced to sell off its stETH to stay afloat (if it hasn’t done so already). This would have the effect of depressing the overall stETH market.
Andrew Thurman of blockchain analytics firm Nansen (and a former CoinDesk colleague) told Decrypt this week that Celsius “sent thousands of stETH to FTX in recent days, presumably to sell, though we can't verify that because it's off-chain … They have likely been especially hard-hit by stETH losing its peg to ETH.”
Concerns that Celsius (and other firms) will be forced to dump more stETH, combined with sales from other stETH holders anxious to cash out during the bear market, may have helped to cause stETH to drop 7% below the price of ETH this week.
Although stETH and ETH should eventually be interchangeable, some holders appear desperate enough to exit their positions that they’ve been willing to trade stETH at a steep discount.
Can stETH enter a death spiral?
The uncoupling of stETH from ETH has provoked questions as to whether Lido is “the next Terra,” but this is not an apples-to-apples comparison.
First off, while Terra's UST stablecoin was “pegged” to the price of $1, stETH was never pegged to the price of ETH.
So long as stETH is not redeemable for ETH, there’s nothing guaranteeing the two should sell at the same price until they are interchangeable.
“The price of [Lido] staked ETH prices in some risk of not doing the Merge, some risk of [Ethereum not allowing] withdraws, and some opportunity cost of having your ether locked up for along time,” Ben Edgington, product lead at Ethereum development firm ConsenSys, told CoinDesk.
According to Edgington, unless you believe ether is going to zero or you think it will never successfully merge into a proof-of-stake network, you can rest easy knowing you can wait it out and eventually trade stETH back for ETH.
UST, on the other hand, was supposed to be pegged to exactly one dollar based on a complex dance with LUNA, its sister token.
But because of the mechanics underpinning this relationship, a drop in UST’s price would cause LUNA’s supply to inflate and its price to decrease. And the same thing happened the other way around – when LUNA’s price decreased enough, UST ultimately struggled to maintain its $1 peg.
The drop in Terra wasn’t merely a case of market sentiment gone bad. It was accelerated by an underlying mechanism that forced UST and LUNA into a “death spiral” to zero under certain conditions.
The relationship between stETH and ETH does not have the sort of feedback loops that doomed Terra.
The people selling stETH at a discount to ETH either need to cash out now (like Celsius needing to pay off loans), or figure ETH’s price will be lower than it is today even after The Merge. Even if it trades at a discount to ETH currently, stETH is unlikely to crash (similar to Terra) unless ether itself crashes.
The price of ETH in PoS
While all of this market talk may feel like a sideshow for an Ethereum protocol-focused newsletter, Edgington explains that the price of ether, which is down 67% year to date, becomes relevant in a proof-of-stake system.
READ MORE: What is Proof of Stake?
As Edgington puts it, “Proof-of-stake is fundamentally different from proof-of-work in terms of its security model. We can put a very clear cost on attacking the chain.”
He continued, “The dirty secret of proof-of-work is that it can be costless to attack the chain, because if you win a 51% attack, you can actually make a profit, assuming that nothing too bad happens to the coin price … smaller chains have come under attack and their coin price has been flat.”
In a proof-of-stake system, says Edgington, “an attack would cost a minimum of a third of all ether staked – so that would be like 4 million ETH today.” (Side note: This is around how much Lido controls, though it spreads its stake between different parties responsible for validating the network).
In a world where ether has a relatively high price, the cost of attack will also be high – hence why developers like Edgington argue it is more secure. Of course, this also works in the other direction. If the price of ether drops low enough, an attack will be cheaper.
The following is an overview of network activity on the Ethereum Beacon Chain over the past week. For more information about the metrics featured in this section, check out our 101 explainer on Eth 2.0 metrics.
Disclaimer: All profits made from CoinDesk’s Eth 2.0 staking venture will be donated to a charity of the company’s choosing once transfers are enabled on the network.
Aave v3 was deployed on the Ropsten testnet.
- WHY IT MATTERS: Following the Ropsten test network successfully merging its proof-of-work execution layer with the Beacon Chain proof-of-stake consensus chain on June 8, developers and users are encouraged to start testing Aave version 3 on the Ropsten testnet. The recent deployment of Aave v3 on Ropsten is one example of many protocols gearing up to be ready for the Merge on the mainnet. The encouragement to test Aave highlights the importance of participants of the Ethereum ecosystem in spotting vulnerabilities and errors before the Merge. Read more here.
Coinbase to lay off roughly 1,100 employees.
- WHY IT MATTERS: In its cost-cutting plan, Coinbase (COIN) is reducing its workforce by around 18%. Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong said, “We appear to be entering a recession after a 10+ year economic boom,” adding that the company grew too fast in the crypto bull market. Coinbase joins several crypto companies like BlockFi, Crypto.com and Gemini in announcing job cuts. Read more here.
PayPal is allowing customers to transfer their ether and other crypto off its platform.
- WHY IT MATTERS: According to CEO Dan Schulman, the move to transfer cryptocurrency from PayPal’s (PYPL) platform to external wallets is the opening step of moving from a fiat-oriented world to a digital currency one. Crypto has been a non-starter when it comes to a payment method, but the stars are aligning in terms of stablecoins, regulation and digital identity innovation, Schulman added. Moreover, Schulman said the current crypto winter is a time to double down. Read more here.
$15M worth of Optimism tokens were sent to the wrong wallet address and stolen.
- WHY IT MATTERS: On June 8, the layer 2 rollup network announced that $15 million of OP governance tokens were sent to the wrong blockchain address. Optimism intended to send the funds to a crypto market maker, Wintermute, but Wintermute provided the wrong wallet address. While Wintermute CEO Evgeny Gaevoy took responsibility for the error, the wallet that holds these governance tokens will still be able to vote on Optimism community governance. The community will decide how Optimism will handle the stolen funds. Read more here.
Goldman Sachs started trading a type of derivative tied to ether.
- WHY IT MATTERS: The global investment banking firm executed its first Ethereum non-deliverable forward, a derivative that pays out based on the price of ether and offers institutional investors indirect exposure. Despite the overall market cap for crypto dropping below $1 trillion for the first time in roughly 18 months on Monday, Goldman’s (GS) move reveals lingering institutional appetite for cryptocurrencies. Read more here.
Factoid of the week
Valid Points incorporates information and data about CoinDesk’s own Ethereum validator in weekly analysis. All profits made from this staking venture will be donated to a charity of our choosing once transfers are enabled on the network. For a full overview of the project, check out our announcement post.
You can verify the activity of the CoinDesk Eth 2.0 validator in real time through our public validator key, which is:
Search for it on any Eth 2.0 block explorer site.
The leader in news and information on cryptocurrency, digital assets and the future of money, CoinDesk is a media outlet that strives for the highest journalistic standards and abides by a strict set of editorial policies. CoinDesk is an independent operating subsidiary of Digital Currency Group, which invests in cryptocurrencies and blockchain startups. As part of their compensation, certain CoinDesk employees, including editorial employees, may receive exposure to DCG equity in the form of stock appreciation rights, which vest over a multi-year period. CoinDesk journalists are not allowed to purchase stock outright in DCG.