DeFi Set Up and Project Diligence

https://defi.cx/dyor-what-to-check-before-buying-a-token/

DeFi is evolving quickly and presents interesting opportunities to make money by investing in new projects. This is a summary of what I wish I’d done before starting to invest more seriously and my current diligence process before backing a project.  As always, I’m writing this all up to be helpful to others, clarify my own understanding and get feedback to refine my approach. 

DeFi Set Up

Before you get started I’d spend a bit of time getting set up — I did not do all of this in the beginning and am much calmer now that I have some of these bases more covered. 

  • A sounding board: Build a network of friends who are more experienced that you can ask about projects and share experiences. All of this is incredibly confusing as a new person, and so it’s important to give and get help. It is also helpful to have early warnings if risky projects look like they are heading for trouble.
  • Start small: I usually start with a smaller amount for new projects and if the user experience with the DApp (Decentralized Application) after a few weeks is good, and I like the risk/return profile, I make it a “core position”. I aim to have no more than 10-15 core positions at any point in time or it it’s very hard to track.
  • Understand risk: Understand that there are layers of risk – new chains, new projects, new tokens all have compounded risk compared to established projects. For example, supplying USDC-DAI on UniSwap Liquidity pool (LP) on Ethereum is way less risky than a RAY-SOL LP on Solana. Another example is using multiple platforms like Beefy to autocompound your DPI/ETH LP on QuickSwap creates layers of risk vs. investing in a single token.
  • Secure your DeFi environment: Spent the time securing your wallets and trading platforms (See this article from the CEO of Nexus who had $8m stolen from him). I use a password manager (1PassWord, LastPass), MetaMask, and write down my codes on paper which are torn in half and kept in separate and secure places. I also use two-factor authentication for everything using products like Google Authenticator/Authy over text where possible. I also use a separate email and browser profile for all my crypto projects.
  • Impermanent loss: Understand impermanent loss before providing liquidity. Impermanent Loss occurs when an automated market maker rebalances the pool to get to a 50/50 ratio of value. Impermanent loss can mean that you actually make less money by providing liquidity than just holding tokens if the price of the underlying tokens changes. This video is great and this article from Bankless and this from Bancor are also excellent.
  • Fees: When executing on strategies especially in Ethereum there are often layers of fees involved (both putting money in and taking money out) – e.g. Token Transfers, Transaction Approvals, Swaps, Pooling Tokens, Staking LP Position, Claiming Rewards, Pooling and Staking to Compound Claimed Rewards. Each of these has a gas fee and can seriously eat into your returns. Good article on holding ETH vs. Active Strategies.
  • Portfolio trackers: You’ll need to use some portfolio trackers like Zerion, Zapper and DeBank (DeBank better for cross-chain) to help you visualize your portfolio and your trading history. The newer projects will likely be excluded so you may have to use a spreadsheet as well.

You need to get comfortable knowing that you’ll never precisely be able to calculate your expected yield – rewards are constantly changing, fees are hard to estimate, and you never know how impermanent loss will affect your returns. 

Before Backing a (New) Project

New projects are riskier than established projects (higher risk of logic bugs, hacking risk or rug pulls) so do extra research before investing in these projects even if the yields are enticing. In particular,  projects with very high XXX%+ yields are inherently very risky and need more work / or less capital at risk. 

For thse newer projects, you need to do extra research and I usually go through the following steps to help you derisk:  

  • Research: Read the medium/announcement posts, join the project Discord and follow their Twitter account — look for good English, signs of a strong community, and engagement from the project developers. 
  • Hacks: Check to see if they’ve been hacked in the past (https://rekt.news/leaderboard/) and avoid projects that have been hacked.
  • Audits: Check to see if they’ve passed audits – Certik and Perk shield are common but this does not guarantee against hacks. 
  • Understanding: Don’t just ape in (go in big, hard, and fast) to chase yield without actually understanding the project. If you can’t describe it in one sentence, don’t invest — I’ve been greedy and gotten burned many times including a front-row seat to Iron Finance where I just managed to get out with my original investment. 
  • Rewards: New projects are particularly fun because you can get rewarded for being an early user and supporter in a very meaningful way, much like early equity investors (e.g. early UniSwap users got $12k of tokens awarded to them). 

Understand the terms

For all your DeFi investments you should read through and understand the terms of your investment as well as the circumstances for each situation. Here are the things I usually look for before making an investment:  

  • Fees: Deposit and withdrawal fees.
  • Lock-up periods: Some farms don’t even let you take out your capital or are subject to high fees if you pull out before the lockup. 
  • Vesting: Vesting of rewards or hurdles before you get your liquidity provider rewards.
  • Source of Yield: Yield can come from trading fees, liquidity pool tokens, or additional third-party staking fees. All of these are usually volatile and require active tracking.
  • Total Value Locked (TVL): I only consider investing if there is at least $1M in pools and there is active trading in those pools else you expose yourself to more slippage and liquidity risk.
  • Liquidity to trading volume ratio: When Trading Volume > Liquidity that feels particularly dangerous (volatility/pumping/dumping etc.)
  • Price slippage: Particularly important for small pools where you are a significant % of the pool which impacts both your deposit and withdrawal. 
  • Difference between APR and APY: APY assumes compounding which is usually inflated as most people are not manually compounding and rewards don’t stay stable over the course of a year. 

This guide (Part 1, Part 2) is BSC (Binance Smart Chain) specific but the concepts are all solid in case you’d like to dig in further or get alternative perspectives.

The Depths of DeFi

Decentralized Finance could potentially change the way we interact with financial services forever and is a total rabbit hole. Here are some of the “levels of depth” that you can get into DeFi and roughly reflects my journey into the DeFi abyss (yes, I will be overusing this analogy!).

I don’t think that most people should move past the shallows unless you’re interested in the underlying technology, are comfortable with the significant risk, and want to follow the impact of DeFi on the financial services ecosystem. 

Dipping your toe in the water

When starting your dive into cryptocurrency and DeFi, the best thing to do is to set up a regular order to buy Ethereum and Bitcoin (e.g. every two weeks) through an exchange like Coinbase to dollar cost average and hold. $BTC and $ETH are ~80% correlated to each other but neither are particularly correlated with the stock market.

BlockFi and Celsius are also great options to hold USD stable coins (USD coins backed by real USD) and make 5-10% in interest that can be paid out in cryptocurrency or stable coins.

Just these two things alone is probably more than 90% of the financial advisors know, which also makes me a little sad given that they are a gateway to investment products.

Wading in the shallows

Once you’re in the water and you have an account on an exchange like Coinbase or Kraken, you may start buying a few more tokens for projects that you’ve heard are interesting like Solana ($SOL), Cardano ($ADA), Polygon ($MATIC), or Polkadot ($DOT). 

Once you’ve bought your cryptocurrency the natural next step is to consider what else you can do with it 🙂 You will create a MetaMask Wallet and install the browser extension to manage your currencies and make your first swap between cryptocurrencies. You’ll send some $ETH to your wallet and maybe buy something like the DeFi Pulse Index ($DPI) which is a collection of some of the most popular DeFi tokens like Uniswap, Sushi and Aave. The BED Index ($BED) is also a pretty solid choice.

You can probably get most of the exposure and benefits of participating in the crypto and DeFi ecosystem by stopping here. You’ll probably also save a ton of money on transaction fees and a lot of unwanted stress. It’s also probably simple enough to do your taxes by just exporting a file from Coinbase and a wallet CSV export.

Feet off the floor

If you’re wondering what’s next, this is when it starts getting more fun. Instead of just holding assets passively your coins start “working for you” and generating yield – much link investing your fiat (USD) you are investing your cryptocurrency.

The main things you’re going to start doing are:

  • Providing liquidity: You’re not just holding tokens for projects that you like but you’re providing liquidity in pools (LPs)  on exchanges like Sushi or UniSwap
  • Staking: You’ve discovered that exchanges or projects will provide extra incentives for providing liquidity (as LP tokens) or with the tokens directly by staking these tokens and locking up your assets for rewards.
  • Reading and learning: You’re reading more frequently and have discovered things like the Finematics Youtube Channel, the Bankless newsletter and podcast, and maybe Kevin Rose’s Modern Finance Podcast. You understand things like impermanent loss, rug pulls, and the difference between proof of work and proof of stake. 
  • Joining the project communities: You may join a few project discords or telegram chats and potentially even participate in the discussions when you’re really excited about the project. 
  • Friends: You probably have a group of like-minded friends that are at the same stage in their journey that you can bounce ideas off. 

Deep waters

When you are in the deep waters you’re comfortable with the basics, you have a clear strategy and you’re switching projects regularly to try and find the best risk-adjusted reward across different chains. I’m here in my DeFi journey. 

  • New Projects: You’re investing in totally new projects, reading whitepapers/announcements, and staying on top of the latest incentives so you can get the best rewards for your tokens. 
  • Degen: You’ve invested in a few degen projects with high volatility – you’ve been burned by impermanent loss a few times and exited too early or too late. 
  • Multiple Chains: You’re investing across multiple chains like Polygon, Terra, and Solana and complaining about the gas fees on Ethereum all the time. You’re scared to look at how much you’ve spent on gas. You go to https://fees.wtf/ and are sad. 
  • Best Price: You’re using tools like Matcha to look up the best exchange rate for your swaps vs. going to UniSwap by default. You feel good when you save money on fees. 
  • Portfolio Construction: You’re starting to think more about portfolio construction, investing discipline, and having some rules for when you invest and when you exit to improve risk/return. 
  • Leverage: You’re starting to get loans on your stable assets and leverage for some stable liquidity pools but still nervous when you do this (and keep collateral around in case it goes sour). 
  • Governance: You are holding governance tokens for some projects that you’ve been supporting for a while and actively voting on the future direction of the project (much like shareholders vote).  
  • Trimming down: You’ve invested in too many things and constantly have to trim back and rebalance because you’ve collected so many useless coins that you don’t know what to do with them. 
  • Portfolio Tracking: You’re using tools like Zapper, Zerion, and Debank for cross-chain — you may even get frustrated that all these tools don’t support all the projects that you’re investing in. You probably have a spreadsheet to calculate all your positions and daily yield because the other tools don’t support it.

This chart shows how other chains like Polygon and BSC have increased the overall trading volume significantly in 2021, due to much lower gas fees (cost per transaction).

https://twitter.com/WuBlockchain/status/1401418884310200320/photo/1 

The Darkness

I honestly have no real idea what lurks in the darkness, and don’t really want to dive here if I can avoid it, but I can only imagine the following things exist:

  • Programmatic trading: Instead of manually moving around your money you’re writing code to programmatically make trades or execute strategies with specific logic.
  • Pre Launch: You’re in all the right communities and know when projects are launching, when exchanges will list tokens, and maybe even have tokens before the general public.
  • Arbitrage: You have a deep understanding of the incentives, risk, and arbitrage across chains and are able to systematically take advantage of these before retail investors (much like traditional finance).
  • Moving markets: You’re pooling assets, taking out flash loans, or in small communities of large investors to take advantage of scale and your trades are actually moving markets. I recently came across a tool called Furcombo which is a no-code tool to let users use flash loans to take advantage of price arbitrage across decentralized exchanges.
  • Stacked Leverage: You’re taking advantage of stacked leverage and incentives which is hard for normal retail investors to understand or access.
  • OTC: You’re not trading using conventional systems because your trades are so large that you can get better rates over the counter 🙂

Here is a similar take from the folks over at Finematics, who produce great content and I’m a supporter of theirs on Patreon.


I hope you enjoy your experiences throughout your journey in DeFi, but unless you want to dedicate a lot of time and mental space to it, wade in and just have fun the shallows and rest safe and easy 🙂

Why Decentralized Finance?

One of the movements I’m most excited about is decentralized finance. Here is the description is taken directly from the Investopedia article which sums it up nicely. 

“Decentralized finance is a system by which financial products become available on a public decentralized blockchain network, making them open to anyone to use, rather than going through middlemen like banks or brokerages. Unlike a bank or brokerage account, a government-issued ID, Social Security number, or proof of address are not necessary to use DeFi.”

One of the better crypto funds I’ve come across, 1kx, estimates that 35% of the cost of the labor market is driven by establishing trust – legal, tax, accounting, auditing, KYC, etc. DeFi refers to a system by which software written on blockchains makes it possible for people who have no established relationship or confidence in each other collaborate without going through a middleman or central authority with a trustless transaction. It puts established centralized institutions such as banks, clearing houses or governments at risk and as such is one of the most disruptive ideas of our generation. 

The blockchain is enabling a shift from the “internet of information” to the “internet of value” where information and value transfer can be written into the same protocol and the incentives of users and developers are more closely linked than ever before. 

We are still in the early innings of decentralized finance; even though there is ~$75BN locked in the ecosystem, the global financial system is close to $100TN (1000x the size). DeFi only really saw the volume pick up a little over a year ago in May 2020 (the start of the “DeFi Summer”). 

Source: https://www.coingecko.com/en/defi – About $75BN in total value locked in July 2021. 

This evolution from traditional finance to decentralized finance is not going to be a smooth ride — the incumbents are centralized institutions like governments, banks that are deeply ingrained in our politics, economics, and culture. The disruption is all bottoms up and global by design and these central institutions are not going to embrace change or give up control quietly.  

Traditional or Centralized vs. Decentralized Finance

Centralized (traditional) finance gives control to a small number of organizations (banks, governments, clearing houses) which users of those organizations are supposed to trust. In many developed markets we trust these central organizations but it’s not true in many emerging markets, with good reason.

Centralized finance excludes many people in the world. Almost 2BN people in the world don’t have access to the banking system and almost 40% of Americans under 25 are underbanked.  These systems are built on outdated infrastructure and process which have very high fixed costs relative to decentralized finance and lack interoperability. Another thing that we cannot control as individuals is the leverage ratio of central banks, the supply of money (governments can print new USD causing inflation) and this gives us less control of our finances in the long term. 

DeFi, has many structural advantages – better technology, faster, cheaper and no reliance or expense needed for central institutions which operate with much higher costs — physical locations, expensive employees and rigid systems.

For example, international wires using traditional rails can have multiple intermediary banks, complex processes, unpredictability of the final transfer amounts (FX and fees) long wait times, and high transaction cost. It’s expensive, slow, and feels awful compared to crypto rails. When you first send USDC to a friend in another country using their wallet address instantly, which is fully trackable and is a fraction of the cost it’s so obvious that the incumbent technology and process is broken.

Here is some high level data on two lending platforms on traditional vs. decentralized rails; Lending club (-60% margin) vs. Maker Dao (+99% margin) and decide which is a better business  🙂 

Source: https://newsletter.banklesshq.com/p/defi-is-eating-finance
Source: https://newsletter.banklesshq.com/p/defi-is-eating-finance

Even though decentralized finance has many structural advantages and I’m very bullish on the bottoms up shift towards decentralized finance, the products and experience are still in their infancy and not appropriate for most people.

It is complicated to access, requires understanding of the underlying mechanisms (which are in turn, complicated) and you have almost no protection as a user. There is constant risk of getting hacked, logic bugs in Distributed Applications (DApps), rug pulls, user error and no FDIC insurance to save you if the sh*t hits the fan. If your wallet or the projects you’re investing in gets compromised you lose your money and there is no way to get it back. The tax code in the US also treats cryptocurrency like property which means that every time you swap currencies it’s a taxable event which is also no bueno for your taxes. The attitude of many enthusiasts in the ecosystem is one of “do your own research” not one of protection or support – proceed with caution even if you are curious.  

Intro Articles

If you’re interested in digging in further, here are a few articles that I think are worth checking out:

Podcasts


I’ll be writing a series of posts on DeFi and my experiences over the next few weeks — the next about the depths of defi and the different levels I’ve experienced personally over the last year.

Crypto Investment Strategy

Bitcoin has increased by 300% in the last three months from $10k (Oct 3) to $33k per $BTC (Jan 3). Ethereum has also increased by 270% in the same period from $350 (Oct 3) to $950 (Jan 3) per $ETH.

I started buying Cryptocurrency in early 2013 ($BTC mainly) mainly because I thought it was an interesting concept at ~$50 a coin. I ‘lost’ most of these coins as part of the Mt Gox Bankruptcy in 2014. I’m hopeful that 10-15% of our holdings may be returned soon, after seven years of waiting.

The US government has printed more than 20% of the total USD in circulation in 2020 alone (over $USD 9 Trillion) and many people have no idea we just got a lot poorer. Given this is happening globally (across governments) I’m starting to think that I should have a more significant percentage of my savings in $BTC and cryptocurrency in general over fiat ($USD). There are also lots of other benefits/value of cryptocurrency beyond inflation protection but I won’t cover them here.

Ultimately, I’d like to allocate 10%+ in Crypto, 20% in technology companies (private), 30% in real estate and 40% in public equities (mostly in tax advantaged retirement and non liquid accounts) but this will take many years and a good amount of luck, too 🙂

Given these observations, here is how I’ll modify my strategy going forward.

Crypto Strategy

  • Focus on $BTC and $ETH: Most of my $BTC is locked up in Mt. Gox (stuck in bankruptcy proceedings), and this counts towards my overall allocation. I assume around 15% of coins returned at some point as $BTC (not fiat). My next largest position is ETH which I’ve had for years. I plan to hold BTC/ETH/All Altcoins in a 50/35/15 ratio in terms of USD fiat value.
  • Regular Purchase: I started taking 15% of my paycheck (2x per month) and purchasing $BTC and $ETC in an equal ratio (50/50) as I am over indexed in $BTC. The goal here is to remove emotion from the decision and dollar cost average over the next few years.
  • Crypto Savings Account: I moved all my extra money to BlockFi and now Celsius (referral links). I have kept some $BTC and $USDC (USD stablecoin) in BlockFi the last year and would rather make 5-8% interest vs. 0.5% interest in traditional finance alternatives. Note that BlockFi is not risk free (they are lending like banks do) but they do have strong security measures to protect your collateral.
  • (optional) DeFi: I have positions in all the stuff powering Decentralized Finance (DeFi) on the Ethereum network, which started for fun but now is more significant (which is how $BTC started for me anyway). I play around with staking, liquidity pools and lending but beware the gas fees (I got burned). My largest position outside of ETH is in this DeFi Pulse Index (https://defipulse.com/blog/defi-pulse-index/) which is a weighted index of all the tokens powering DeFi.

I also hold small amounts of other Altcoins like Stellar Lumens ($XLM), Polkadot ($DOT), Ripple ($XRP), Filecoin ($FIL bought in the 2017 SAFT), Arweave ($AR), UNI ($UNI), Sushi ($SUSHI), Cosmos ($ATOM), Solana ($SOL) as well as about a dozen others, but those are more out of interest than part of an actual strategy. I also added NFTX as an index for collectibles to the mix.

All of this is still very experimental, and I wrote this up to share more easily and get feedback. Despite dabbling for eight years, I still feel like a n00b most of the time in the crypto world.