A Deep Look at the Basis Protocol

Note: This is an old article being moved over from Medium

After taking a broad look at stablecoins as a whole and then Dai in specific, I decided to keep the momentum going and take a deep look at the Basis Protocol. Same rules as I did for Dai, you guys are coming with me as we go through the whitepaper (I may skip things that are super boring, or I think are meaningless marketing speak). Also, always remember I do not edit, I write in one straight run through, and it is often late at night when I’m writing so my thoughts tend to…meander.

First we’re skipping all the stuff about why they think stability is important, because that is not what we are discussing today. Plus, most of it sounds like marketing speak to my ear. I am pulling out this one phrase though, just because it made me incredibly nervous when I read it for some reason. Mainly because whenever I see algorithm here, I imagine the potential for nefarious actors to manipulate it by exploiting weaknesses in the algorithm, however, I need to judge them on their implementation and not my biases.

This phrase is going to piss off the libertarians and “sound money” fans who love that Bitcoin is fixed, but I have always been nervous that Bitcoin’s deflationary nature represented a potential risk for a small number of oligarchs to end up with a disproportionate amount of wealth. (Apparently I’m okay with pissing people off tonight, sweet this is going to get interesting)

For the record it took until page 8 for them to start discussing how this works, and that upsets me. Way too much marketing speak before this. The next section is all about the quantity theory of money which is basically the ability to inflate or deflate.

Biggest problem I see here is the potential for aggregate demand to be mismeasured by one of the Oracles, or however they determine this.

Okay so here I am going to copy and paste my own previous explanation of these different coins from my stablecoins article.

  1. Base Shares
  2. Base Coins
  3. Base Bonds

The base shares are created in the genesis block and all new base coins go to them as “dividends” (holy shit I hope they spent some of that $100 million on Securities lawyers). The base coins are a separate coin from the shares that is issued to holders of the base shares when the price of the base coin exceeds peg, in theory diluting their value and bringing the value back to peg. Base bonds are issued when the value falls below peg. When this happens you can purchase a Base bond for the current value so say $.80 and then redeem it for $1.

Now where this gets even trickier is when it comes time to issue new coins is that it goes first in, first out. So it goes to the oldest bond holder first, and then continues down the line, and if there are in theory no bond holders then the coins are issued to the share holders.

Now what is the issue with this system? Economics mostly. Let’s start with what is the most obvious to me, my incentive if I am a whale and if this is liquidity is to become a large share holder, and then whenever I get a dividend to immediately sell it, purchase bonds, wait for them to redeem, and then dump again. If the market gets too big for me to do this alone, I do what all the whales are already doing in crypto and organize this process with a few other people.

The second problem and the more troubling one, where this needs more investors always coming in (gotta maintain the stability fund they talk about) is better captured by Preston Byrne than I could: “It seems to me on this very cursory review that Basecoin depends on

  • Printing free money and giving it to crypto-investors who are inclined to hold it and thus restrict supply;
  • Providing financial incentives to subsequent investors to introduce money into the scheme and subsidize the price of the scheme if the price of a coin should fall below a certain level (say, $1);
  • Vulnerable to a not-at-all-decentralized reliance on price indicators provided by unsupervised, unregulated third-party trading venues already suspected of serious shenanigans;
  • Granting primary benefits of the scheme to early buyers in an unregulated ICO;
  • Where every participant is betting on the price of their assets rising;
  • Which cannot sustain itself without finding new buyers for $BASE.”

Despite those issues we are going to continue on this whitepaper and make sure there isn’t anything that Preston Byrne and I have missed. (Spoiler alert: I doubt there will be.)

I’m pretty sure the Treasury issues bonds not the Fed right? Am I mistaken?

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Savings_Bonds

No, I am not mistaken they are. Troubling considering how many millions of VC dollars they have raised.

Okay let’s discuss these mechanisms for a minute. First one is obviously worthless. One glitch in the feed and you could seriously hurt your monetary supply. Toss it. Second one is probably reasonable. However, both the second and the third one are going to run into the problems that the Ethereum DAO and the EOS launch have had. Mainly most people just do not vote. The incentive may help, but it makes this protocol naturally inflationary, which will require the issuing of more bonds, and I worry that the inflation could start to outrun the system.

This claim that it would require 50% of the voting coinbase is an interesting one. Namely because it is important to remember that likely much of the coinbase will not be voting (see Ethereum DAO and EOS). Thus comparing it to Bitcoin where you need objectively 51% of the hashpower to execute a double-spend attack (closer to 33% for a selfish mining attack) is very different than 50% of the voting coinbase which might be closer to 10% of the total supply. Therefore, it is much more vulnerable than they make it seem here. They think that their incentive system will help increase the percentage who are voting, but it is important to remember much of this coin is probably going to be like other stablecoins where it is held at an exchange and used primarily for short-term trading, so I do not buy that

We already discussed this above.

Already discussed this above too.

Well I kinda want that later discussion, this makes me very nervous. Also means there is always going to be a risk that bond holders are taking on, which is different than the risk-less way they pitch it.

Here we go, they are saying basically what I said. Now, there are other existential risks that occur when demand falls like they are worried about here, mainly centered around the “stability fund” they discuss alter in this paper.

I’m just imaging what would happen if the United States Government decided to start just defaulting on their debt. (The answer is the rate at which people would lend them money would skyrocket as their credit rating plummeted, and the USD would likely lose it’s place as global reserve currency, while it inflates in order to try to cover remaining debt) So basically not the analogy you want to evoke.

Intuitively to me it feels like at any point of serious expansion, arising after a long period of stability, it is going to be more beneficial to be a shareholder than a bondholder.

Okay, so contraction is interesting. We’re back to these bonds. My issue with these bonds again, is that you could potentially (though five years is a long time) be left holding a worthless bond. If I am understanding the clearing price part right, they are also basically trying to incentivize bond purchases near the peg, which is actually really clever. I quite like the thought that went into that, because it was initially counterintuitive to me. Basically, you are encouraged to put your order at a high price, because if they need more coins than that, it will actually fill at a lower price than your order, but you are guaranteed to be getting in first. Clever little bit of game theory and incentive setting. Props to the Basis team for that.

Quite frankly, I do not think I am qualified to analyze this part. My one fear is the fitting of GBM parameters to those assets, which generally trend up. I am still worried about potential Black Swan events, but I am not qualified to judge this model setup.

This seems true, if the price is expected to return to peg. Though I am not sure about people taking short positions, because of the cost. There is also the key point here that as long as there is sufficient liquidity, that will come in later when they discuss the “stability fund”.

I just realized they do not discuss their “stability fund” in their whitepaper. In some of their other documents, they say that they will use money raised to provide a stability fund that will provide off chain stability in price. So just like the other stablecoins, they are trading their own coin to maintain the peg. One of the biggest peg breaks for Dai was when their bot doing this trading failed. They also need this to provide the liquidity neccessary for price responsiveness, but in order to maintain the fund they will continually need money coming in. That is….dangerous.

Overall, I would not trust Basis, or any other stablecoin I have analyzed so far. Remember, I wrote this late at night, and in one straight shot without editing, so if you catch any errors please let me know.

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