Beware Of Flatcoins, Crypto’s Inflation Busting Fad

Published 4 months ago
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These coins are designed to protect stablecoin holders from inflation. But they are complicated and it’s not clear whether they will actually work.

Stablecoins are digital tokens created to mirror the value of hard currencies like the U.S. dollar. They are critical for liquidity in the $1.2 trillion crypto market because investors need a steady, predictable place to park cash, in part because bitcoin, which will swing as much as 10% in a single day, has largely failed as a store of value. There are $120 billion in stablecoins outstanding. Unfortunately, their history is anything but stable.

In May 2022, TerraUSD, a stablecoin dreamed up by a Stanford-educated South Korean programmer named Do Kwon, famously collapsed because its value was based on an algorithm that proved to be unreliable in the face of an asset run. More than $45 billion in market value evaporated in a single day setting off a crypto market plunge. After being on the lam for nearly a year, Do Kwon was recently arrested in Montenegro. Then, there is the world’s largest stablecoin issuer Tether, which has $80 billion outstanding, but has long avoided even the most basic disclosures (like where it is located) and has been in trouble with regulators numerous times. On several occasions Tether’s U.S. dollar coin (USDC) has “broken the buck” and dipped below $1.00 in value.

Even the most regulatory compliant and transparent stablecoin, Circle’s USD Coin (USDC), which has $30 billion outstanding, has disappointed investors. When Silicon Valley Bank collapsed on March 10, USDC’s Boston-based issuer Circle admitted to having $3.3 billion on deposit at the bank, mostly uninsured. The price of USDC lost its peg, nosediving to $0.88 cents on March 11.

But stablecoins are still essential for serious players in the digital asset world, and hope springs eternal in crypto, so a new product has hit the market called promising an inflation-adjusted version of stablecoins. Dubbed “flatcoins” these new tokens are designed to to maintain purchasing power parity with a basket of goods by keeping up with inflation.

So far only about $100 million in flatcoins have been minted but with inflation stubbornly stuck at 4.6%, demand for these novel tokens is growing. Already Coinbase is actively looking to seed flatcoins on its new Ethereum Layer 2 blockchain Base.

“We are fascinated by the deep thought we’re seeing in decentralized stablecoin design and are particularly interested in ‘flatcoins’ – stablecoins that track the rate of inflation, enabling users to have stability in purchasing power while also having resiliency from the economic uncertainty caused by the legacy financial system,” wrote Coinbase in a recent post.

Flatcoins are the brainchild of former Coinbase Chief Technology Officer Balaji Srinivasan and an Iranian born programer Sam Kazemian, who came up with a stablecoin protocol named Frax in 2021, and an inflation tracking index called Frax Price Index (FPI).

“The term flatcoin was basically meant to signify by me and Balaji that it stays flat to a standard of living, ” says Kazemian who notes that his new flatcoin would be partially backed by collateral like USDC, and partially “stabilized” algorithmically.

Here are the basics mechanics of the new inflation-protected stablecoins. The first thing the Frax programmers set out to do is identify a targeted standard of living to track. Kazemian built a feed with a blockchain data provider called Chainlink to publish each month’s CPI from the Federal Reserve’s Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS) onto the Ethereum blockchain. With the current 12-month trailing inflation rate at 5%, Frax has a set of smart contracts programmed to automatically conduct algorithmic trading with a goal of profiting enough to match the monthly inflation print sent from Chainlink.

In theory, this would mean that if a single tether or USDC is still worth $1.00, in a 5% inflation world an FPI would be redeemable for $1.05 of collateral. In order to earn the necessary amounts to cover the inflation premium, Kazemian’s team invests collateral in DeFi lending protocols such as Aave and Convex, which primarily focus on stablecoin markets. These DeFi protocols earn yield for letting borrowers access their tokens. These returns then become available for FPI minters to withdraw. However, FPI is run by a Decentralized Autonomous Organization, which could make changes to its risk parameters in the future.

If this sounds complicated and risky, it is, especially relative to simply owning a stablecoin like USDC and simultaneously hedging with something like a gold ETF or even Treasury Inflation Protected Securities (TIPS), where the U.S. government effectively covers the inflation risk.

Even more complicated is another flatcoin called Nuon. Rather than simply matching the BLS’ inflation reading, it joined up with a sister company called Trustflation to produce real-time inflation data based on a proprietary methodology. For instance, while the BLS inflation has eight main categories: food and beverages, housing, apparel, transportation, medical care, recreation, education and communication, and other goods and services, Trustflation has 12. Additions include clothing/footwear and alcohol/tobacco. The company also weights categories differently than the BLS and pulls in data real-time through service agreements with various providers instead of just relying on monthly updates.

“When we studied inflation we realized that it was calculated by 477 people on a monthly basis in a nebulous fashion,” says Trustflation and Nuon CEO Stefan Rust. “We decided to use a developer approach, take the same metrics, pull it from API’s, and have it updated in real time.”

While no one would argue that the collection and indexing of official inflation data doesn’t have numerous flaws, including an antiquated monthly production schedule, Trustflation’s Moneyball-esque approach to calculating real time inflation data does not come without drawbacks.

“When inflation is between 1.5%, and 2.5% per annum, it’s probably a bit of overkill, but when topline inflation is 8% to 9% those numbers may be meaningful on a day-to-day basis,” says Peter C. Earle, an economist at the American Institute for Economic Research. “I think it’s interesting to capture daily or intraday inflation data, but I also think there’s a lot of statistical noise.”

That noise could become deafening if the data feeds which determine prices and return targets , known in the crypto world as oracles, become corrupted. Crypto forensics firms report that so called oracle manipulation attacks cost investors $362 million last year. It is not impossible to foresee a scenario where an oracle gets manipulated to force one of these platforms to employ a riskier trading strategy than anticipated.

But data collection is not the only worry flatcoin buyers need to worry about. Behind Nuon’s inflation-protection guarantee is a complicated and potentially risky proposition. When an individual “mints” Nuon, he must deposit ether in its protocol, which then automatically buys the same amount of Nuon on the open market and deposits it in a DeFi protocol such as Uniswap or Pancakeswap. Income generated from this deposit, known as “yield farming,” is added to a user’s collateral position (which is the original ether) essentially as an “insurance.” Thus unlike FPI, nuon positions are overcollateralized – for instance a user must deposit $1.30 worth of ether to mint $1 of nuon.

So far both FPI and nuon are having trouble tracking inflation (see charts). According to CoinGecko, FPI is currently priced at $1.08, but in its almost 12 months in existence it has traded as high as $1.18 and as low as $0.92, which would imply that in the last 12 months, inflation has spiked as high as 18% and below 1%. Nuon has dramatically outperformed inflation in its short existence; it only launched in March. Right now it is priced at $1.24, but it has been as high as $1.44.

Ifflatcoins are meant to be the next evolution of digital “safe money”, stablecoin’s biggest player’s have yet to sign on. Circle, which issues USDC, has no plans to issue a flatcoin. Circle already has more than $25 billion in short Treasury bills backing its USDC tokens, but it is precluded from buying TIPS, because they are not issued in durations shorter than five years. Tether did not respond to requests for comment.

Flatcoins are so new they do not yet appear in any of the current stablecoin regulation bills circulating around Capitol Hill. The bi-partisan draft introduced in April proposed a ban on new algorithmically derived stablecoins such as TerraUSD/LUNA, where the stablecoin was backed by a sister token. Flatcoins use computer algorithms to derive their valuations, however, in their current incarnation do not fit neatly into the bill’s specific description. Still, any new stablecoins would have to be issued by a licensed entity at the state or federal level, so these products would need a bank backer if they expect to ever go mainstream.

Rust says that there are no restrictions on users in the U.S. from minting Nuon right now. “I guess, they are in a bit of a gray zone [with regards to how flatcoins fall under securities regulation]…At the moment, all the indications are that stablecoins pegged to the dollar or euro will fall under some regulation.”

Forbes called various legislators and regulators involved with the recently proposed stablecoin legislation to ask about flatcoins but most hadn’t even heard of them yet. Said Representative Brad Sherman (D-CA), a noted crypto critic, “We already have something like that. They’re called TIPS.”

By Steven Ehrlich, Forbes Staff