Synthetic Assets: The Promising Frontier of On-Chain Financial Engineering
- Perpetual futures on popular cryptocurrencies like ETH, BTC, BNB, MATIC, and SOL, along with highly liquid TradFi assets such as forex pairs, gold, and S&P E-mini, demonstrate strong potential drivers for adoption. These assets could be among the initial synthetic instruments to be introduced on TON once the appropriate oracles are adopted.
- Certain on-chain TradFi assets, like stocks, are likely to encounter adoption bottlenecks due to the absence of a premium compensating investors for the additional risks associated with investing on-chain. These risks include the potential for smart contract breaches and exploits. As a result, assets held for shorter durations (as mentioned in the previous point) may be better suited for on-chain trading. However, users from countries with restricted access to popular global financial instruments might find these risks acceptable.
- The concept of synthetic assets extends far beyond derivatives and on-chain TradFi assets. Notable use cases include anti-inflationary dTokens by Dafi Protocol and EtherDai by MakerDAO. While Dafi’s dTokens are meant to optimize the incentive model in the projects which native tokens they are pegged to, EtherDai is proposed to expand Maker’s lending markets.
- What does this mean for TON? Attracting a liquidity protocol like Synthetix to TON Ecosystem may present challenges due to a lack of EVM-compatibility. Therefore, developers should shift their focus towards building a TON-native liquidity protocol for synthetics. This would involve identifying an oracle provider that can support real-world financial data. It is recommended to focus on perpetual futures for forex, gold, popular indices, and highly liquid crypto assets, rather than synthetic stocks.
Synthetic assets are the on-chain equivalent of traditional derivatives. Similar to TradFi, where investors and traders can engage in buying and selling derivatives that do not represent ownership of an underlying asset but nonetheless enable them to benefit from price fluctuations, synthetic assets on blockchain facilitate the trading of various assets without requiring actual ownership. By using smart contracts, these assets can be programmatically created, traded, and settled, eliminating the need for intermediaries and facilitating worldwide accessibility.
Synthetics offer access to a diverse array of assets that might otherwise be inaccessible or difficult to trade due to geographical or legal restrictions. For instance, an individual could generate a synthetic version of the U.S. dollar (a synthetic stablecoin) on a blockchain, enabling effortless global transfers and utilization without relying on conventional banking infrastructure. Moreover, synthetics can enable traders to take both long and short positions on various assets, allowing for more diverse trading strategies.
Although synthetics are commonly associated with on-chain TradFi assets, such as stocks of high-capitalization companies, they have numerous applications beyond simply bringing TradFi assets onto the blockchain:
- A more widespread application of synthetic assets is in the form of perpetual futures and decentralized options. These financial instruments replicate traditional finance futures and options, but with cryptocurrencies as the underlying asset. A perpetual future gives a trader synthetic exposure to a specific financial asset, enabling them to profit from price fluctuations without the need for actual asset ownership. The term “perpetual” refers to the lack of an expiration date, meaning that these contracts can be held indefinitely, as they do not have a predetermined delivery date.
- There is also a subgroup of synthetic assets, whose utility is not associated with capital efficiency:
Wrapped tokens, such as wBTC or wETH, are also viewed as synthetic assets, since they are artificially designed to maintain a one-to-one peg with another crypto asset. Wrapper tokens are meant to bring the utility of the underlying tokens to new networks and protocols.
A more advanced form of wrapper tokens is fully synthetic assets, designed to track the price movements of the underlying cryptocurrency. An example of this is EtherDai, which was recently proposed by MakerDAO to expand its lending market**.** EtherDai is backed by stETH, pegged to the value of ETH, and serves a very specific purpose within the Maker ecosystem.
Finally, decentralized synthetics can also be pegged to network demand in order to effectively regulate inflation. An example of this is the introduction of anti-inflationary dTokens through a staking incentive model, as proposed by Dafi Protocol.
As blockchains, protocols, and dApps continue to utilize synthetic assets, we can expect this list to expand even further. These synthetics are continuously employed to optimize access to specific assets, create new instruments with diverse exposure and risk profiles, and incorporate different incentive models and macroeconomic factors within their ecosystems.
How Are Synthetic Assets Created and Maintained?
The creation of a synthetic asset involves adding a record on the blockchain for the derivative that is created, effectively transforming it into a tokenized derivative.
Each time an asset is minted, it requires collateral to back it up. Users lock up a specific amount of cryptocurrency or other digital assets as collateral, enabling them to mint or generate the synthetic asset and receive a reward for the deposited collateral. This collateral acts as a guarantee for the value of the synthetic asset.
The smart contract secures the collateral and issues the synthetic asset to the user’s wallet address. The value of the synthetic asset is typically pegged to the value of the underlying asset it represents. Once minted, synthetic assets can be freely traded on decentralized exchanges or other platforms that support their trading, or used for their intended utility functions.
Synthetic assets require accurate and up-to-date information about the value of the underlying asset. Price oracles, or external data providers, send this information to the smart contract. These oracles fetch the real-time prices of the underlying asset from various sources and feed them into the smart contract, ensuring the synthetic asset’s value remains in sync with the real-world asset. Unlike traditional futures, where prices are market-driven, the price of synthetic assets is adjusted through capital flows between the long and short positions.
To maintain the stability of synthetic assets, smart contracts often incorporate built-in mechanisms to manage collateralization ratios. If the value of the collateral falls below a certain threshold, a liquidation process can be triggered. In such cases, the smart contract can automatically sell the collateral to protect the value of the synthetic assets and ensure the stability of the system.
An Overview of Decentralized Synthetic Assets Protocols
While all protocols mentioned below are acknowledged as synthetic asset protocols, they each have a unique market position and cater to diverse use cases.
Synthetix, founded in 2017 by Kain Warwick, is a derivatives liquidity protocol and one of the first and most prominent synthetic asset protocols around. Kwenta, a DEX for perpetual futures, is part of the Synthetix network.
The protocol allows stakers to mint derivative products, which can then be used by exchanges and trading platforms. Borrowers participate by making an over-collateralized deposit to mint the desired derivative product. One of the main products Synthenix offers is perpetual futures, or “perps”, which are contracts tied to the price of a certain coin that can be highly leveraged and have no expiry date. Several exchanges and platforms have partnered with Synthetix to feature financial instruments powered by the protocol, including Kwenta, Polynomial, Decentrex, dHedge, Conduit, and Lyra. GMX also recently launched synthetics trading powered by Synthetix in their testnet (source).
SNX is an ecosystem token used for collateralization alongside ETH and LUSD. SNX holders govern the protocol and earn rewards from the trading fees for the financial stability they provide.
Synthetix generated $27.19M over the last year, making it the most profitable protocol for synthetic assets. The protocol ranks 23rd in terms of generated fees among protocols and networks across all sectors, according to Token Terminal.
Universal Market Access (UMA)
The UMA protocol consists of two key components: an oracle and a contract design that facilitates the minting of synthetic assets. UMA allows developers to bring market or real-world data on-chain, enabling the creation of synthetic assets. Unlike Synthetix, UMA itself does not act as a liquidity protocol.
To date, the list of projects built with UMA’s oracle does not include any synthetic asset protocols (source). However, individual contracts such as the expired Synthetic Gold Futures and Synthetic USD Futures which could be minted on PerlinX.
In 2021, UMA partnered with Yam Finance to launch uSTONKS, a token that aimed to track the prevailing sentiment of WallStreetBets, a well-known Reddit community focused on stock and options trading. uSTONKS acted as a basket of stocks that received the most comments from members of the subreddit. The token was backed by USDC and had a specific expiration date. However, currently, uSTONKS is no longer traded since the last contract expired in April 2021.
DeFiChain, founded in 2020 by Julian Hosp and U-Zyn Chua, who are also the co-founders of Cake DeFi, is a DeFi platform that provides a range of services specifically tailored to the Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT) community.
One of the prominent products within its ecosystem is DeFiChain DEX, an exchange that offers more than 60 dTokens. These dTokens represent assets whose prices are pegged to specific references determined by an oracle. DeFiChain also serves as a liquidity protocol as dTokens are minted on the platform. The stock synths available on the DEX encompass large-cap US and European companies. Additionally, the DEX features ETFs such as ARKK, QQQ, SPY, TLT, and VOO.
According to CoinMarketCap, the DEX currently has a 24-hour trading volume of $0.9M. The most actively traded synthetics on the platform are TSLA, COIN, and NVDA.
Opium Network is an ecosystem of blockchain-based governance and finance tools. It powers Opium Finance, a platform for creating and trading decentralized derivatives, and Opium Research, a market analysis platform for derivatives.
Opium v2 is a smart financial escrow protocol that enables the creation of derivative contracts. The use cases include call and put options, which are represented by Opium position tokens. These tokens can be exchanged on an automated market maker (AMM) or exercised at expiration (source).
Opium Finance currently offers Turbo ETH and ETH Dump Protection, which are ETH call and put options, as well as an $OPIUM call option. Users can trade these assets and provide liquidity to their pools. The platform also includes a derivatives constructor, a tool that allows users to create derivative assets with customizable fee structures.
Parcl is a platform founded by Stephen Robinson and Trevor Bacon in 2020 that facilitates on-chain investment in real estate and the metaverse.
Parcl is a non-custodial automated market maker (AMM) operating on the Solana blockchain, specifically designed for perpetual synthetic assets. The platform merges the functionality of traditional AMMs and synthetic asset protocols, enabling users to invest in fractional shares of real estate and metaverse properties across the globe. This involves the generation of synthetic “Parcls” tied to price feeds that provide data on the average price per square foot/meter within a given neighborhood (source).
This technology differs from on-chain fractional ownership of real estate, which we discussed in our dedicated report on real estate tokenization. While fractional ownership involves backing an asset with real-world collateral, real estate synthetics utilize on-chain collateralization. These synthetics represent indices that track real estate prices, without conferring actual ownership of the underlying assets.
Currently, the data feeds include city indexes with a combined total deposit of $100K, while the top index has an open interest of $27.6K (source).
MakerDAO / DAI-Based Synthetics
MakerDAO is a widely recognized protocol and the issuer of the DAI stablecoin. DAI is considered a synthetic stablecoin because its issuance is determined by collateralizing a higher-value asset, and its price is pegged to the US dollar.
Furthermore, in May of this year, MakerDAO introduced the Spark Protocol, a money market built upon DAI. The purpose of Spark Protocol is to expand the capabilities of MakerDAO through liquidity markets and lending services. As part of its expansion, the platform intends to launch EtherDAI, a liquid staking synthetic derivative tied to the price of Ethereum. The goal is to broaden MakerDAO’s lending market by introducing additional collateral options for minting DAI and enabling the accumulation of stETH tokens by the protocol. EtherDAI will be used for fixed-term yield products (source) and is backed by liquid-staked Ether tokens as well as debt issued by MakerDAO (source).
Although this use case differs from the ones described above, insofar as it does not pertain to digital or traditional assets, it is still important to mention MakerDAO in the context of synthetic assets. The architecture used by Maker could be extended to any asset that can be collateralized and brought onto the blockchain.
Dafi is another synthetic asset protocol, but with a very unique purpose. Established in 2018, Dafi introduced synthetic assets that are tied to the demand within specific networks. Initially, Dafi developed an asset as an MVP pegged to the demand on the Bitcoin network. Over time, this evolved into the creation of network synthetics for individual blockchains or protocols through partnerships with Dafi.
The pioneering incentive module introduced by Dafi aims to replace simple staking rewards by utilizing dTokens, which are issued based on the demand within the network. As demand for the network’s services grows, the quantity of dTokens distributed to users also increases. This algorithm ensures that high yields are provided during periods of instability, encouraging users to purchase and hold tokens and preventing a complete wind-down. dTokens play a crucial role in incentivizing nodes, staking, and liquidity, thereby rewarding long-term users and promoting prolonged token ownership. The distribution of rewards is carried out through Dafi’s Super Stake Module.
The DAFI token has emerged as one of the top gainers among synthetic tokens in the month leading up to this current report. Notably, a considerable amount of buying activity took place in January 2023, coinciding with the unveiling of Dafi’s new hybrid exchange. This momentum continued into May.
Although certain use cases have demonstrated their viability, others face challenges in terms of adoption due to the lack of incentives for regular users to deviate from analogous TradFi instruments:
When it comes to on-chain TradFi assets, the risks associated with holding assets originating from foreign countries while being a resident of a country with highly restricted access to such assets may outweigh the risk of trading those assets on-chain and exposing funds to potential smart contract breaches. In jurisdictions where there is unrestricted access to global equities, bonds, and other TradFi assets, the lack of a premium for this risk could act as a bottleneck hindering widespread adoption. While minters receive staking rewards for the collateral they deposit, traders do not receive any additional rewards compared to TradFi trading. However, the aforementioned risk becomes less concerning for assets typically held for shorter terms, such as forex, commodities, and index futures.
To date, there no examples of on-chain TradFi instruments that have gained widespread adoption. DefiChain stands out as one of the few platforms that introduced on-chain trading of stocks in 2021. However, the trading volumes on these platforms have remained relatively modest thus far.
Top-5 traded stocks on DefiChain:
As mentioned earlier, GMX has recently introduced TradFi synthetics trading on their testnet. Once the mainnet is launched, the trading stats will offer more insights into the likelihood of widespread adoption.
Perpetual futures and decentralized options on crypto assets are essentially replicating TradFi derivative instruments. As long as highly liquid markets in crypto exist, it is inevitable that perps and decentralized options will gain adoption within their niche target markets as a means of improved capital efficiency. BTC, ETH, and popular altcoins consistently rank among the most traded perps on both DEXs and CEXs.
Perpetual futures stats in Synthetix as of 12.06.23, top-10 instruments:
Perpetual futures stats by exchange as of 12.06.23:
The comparison of perpetual and spot DEX trading volumes in popular assets gives the visual representation of the market size:
Synthetic crypto derivatives, such as EtherDai proposed by MakerDAO, and anti-inflationary dTokens, maintained by Dafi Protocol, have highly specific purposes that make discussions about their future adoption less relevant.
Overall, perpetual futures and options on popular crypto assets, along with the most liquid TradFi assets, exhibit strong potential drivers for future adoption.
Implications for TON
There is a reason to create a synthetic only if the following conditions met:
- The underlying asset is highly liquid. Liquid assets attract a larger number of buyers and sellers, which in turn ensures a sufficient trading volume and promotes price stability. This liquidity is essential for effective hedging against price movements and facilitates accurate price discovery. Consequently, futures contracts become valuable tools for risk management and trading strategies. Conversely, less liquid assets may have limited availability of futures, which can impact trading activity and hinder pricing efficiency.
- Investors and traders do not require a premium as compensation for the risks associated with on-chain trading. This condition is fulfilled for traders and investors residing in countries with structural limitations on accessing global markets. It is also relevant for assets utilized in short-term trading strategies.
- The prices for the underlying asset are provided by oracles in the ecosystem. However, it is evident that the absence of suitable oracles can restrict the range of available assets.
This leaves us with two main options for bringing synths into TON:
- Perpetual futures and options on highly liquid crypto assets, such as Ethereum and Bitcoin. There are already many existing platforms offering these instruments. Therefore, entering this market would necessitate the development of a sophisticated value proposition and a substantial improvement in user experience compared to competing platforms.
- Perpetual futures on popular TradFi assets like forex, gold, and indices. Gold contracts are among the most traded instruments on Kwenta (source). One experimental option is to launch perpetual contracts on popular forex pairs, such as EUR/USD, JPY/USD, and GBP/USD. Another option is to create an on-chain analogue of S&P 500 E-Mini futures. All of these are among the most active futures traded in traditional finance (source). These alternatives are particularly attractive due to the limited availability of solutions in the current market.
The fastest way to achieve this would be to partner with a derivatives liquidity protocol and launch new products on existing DEXs. Many DEXs offering synthetic asset trading use price feeds from either Chainlink or Pyth Network, both of which are integrated with Synthetix (source).
Pyth Network is supported by data providers specializing in equity, commodities, forex, indices, and other market data, such as Cboe Global Markets, Jane Street and Susquehanna, while Chainlink sources its data from middlemen between the source and the user, referred to as node operators.
Currently, oracles are a top priority for TON. One way to integrate financial market data into TON is to partner with a liquidity protocol that already utilizes price feeds from oracle providers like Chainlink and Pyth Network, as seen with Synthetix, but the lack of EVM compatibility may be a bottleneck. A more complex solution would be to partner with such an oracle and develop TON’s own liquidity protocol for synthetics.
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