Is DeFi Different From Crypto?

Josiah Nang-Bayi, MD
10 Min Read

Decentralized finance (DeFi) is one of the hottest topics in the blockchain world today. But is DeFi truly something new and different or is it simply a subset of the broader crypto sphere? In this comprehensive guide, we’ll explore the key differences as well as similarities between decentralized finance and cryptocurrencies.

Defining DeFi and Crypto

First, let’s ensure we have a solid understanding of what exactly decentralized finance and cryptocurrency encompass.

Cryptocurrency refers to digital or virtual assets that are secured through cryptography. Cryptocurrencies leverage blockchain technology to enable peer-to-peer transactions without central intermediaries. Bitcoin, launched in 2009, was the first cryptocurrency, but today there are over 10,000 different cryptocurrencies in existence. Prominent examples include Ethereum, Cardano, Solana, and Dogecoin.

Decentralized finance refers to an ecosystem of financial applications built on blockchain networks that allow for peer-to-peer financial transactions and services without centralized intermediaries. DeFi platforms may include lending protocols, decentralized exchanges, stablecoins, derivatives, insurance applications, asset management tools, and more.

While cryptocurrency refers specifically to blockchain-based mediums of exchange, DeFi refers to a range of financial use cases and applications involving cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology.

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Technical Architecture

On a technical level, most DeFi platforms are built on top of existing blockchain networks like Ethereum, Solana, or Terra. The decentralized and immutable qualities of the underlying blockchain provide security and transparency for DeFi applications. DeFi expands the utility of blockchain technology into finance.

Cryptocurrencies, on the other hand, are native assets of their own blockchain networks. Bitcoin runs on the Bitcoin blockchain, Ether runs on the Ethereum blockchain, etc. The cryptocurrencies serve as the transmission medium that powers transactions on these networks. They also serve as an incentive mechanism for validators through token rewards.

While DeFi relies on cryptocurrency networks, cryptocurrencies can operate as standalone assets without any DeFi use cases built on them. From an architectural perspective, cryptocurrencies are foundational while DeFi applications are additive.

Purpose and Function

The core purpose of cryptocurrencies is to enable direct peer-to-peer payments and serve as decentralized money without government or financial institution intervention. Use cases include payments, remittances, donations, e-commerce, and as a store of value. Cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Litecoin aim to function as efficient digital cash.

DeFi expands beyond just payments to provide a broad range of financial services using smart contracts like lending, trading, insurance, savings, asset management and more. The sector aims to replicate and expand upon traditional financial applications in a decentralized architecture. The functions of DeFi platforms are much more diverse compared to cryptocurrency coins used for transactions.

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Market Landscape

There are over 10,000 different cryptocurrencies in existence today across a wide range of blockchain networks, offering similar monetary functions with differences in attributes like speed, fees, and governance. Leading cryptocurrencies include Bitcoin, Ethereum, XRP, Cardano, Solana, Dogecoin, and Polkadot. It’s a highly diverse landscape.

The DeFi ecosystem is much more concentrated, with Ethereum dominating in terms of DeFi platforms and total value locked. However, competition is emerging from new smart contract blockchains like Solana, Avalanche, and Terra. Leading DeFi applications include Aave, Uniswap, Curve, MakerDAO, Compound, and Yearn Finance. The market is much more application-focused.

While cryptocurrencies comprise their own sector and market, DeFi essentially represents a niche within the broader crypto/blockchain industry. The cryptocurrency market is also significantly larger than DeFi in terms of value.

Users and Adoption

Cryptocurrencies boast a much broader user base compared to decentralized finance. A significant portion of crypto users solely invest in cryptocurrency assets for speculation or store of value purposes without utilizing DeFi platforms. Surveys show less than 15% of cryptocurrency owners actively use DeFi apps.

DeFi users represent a subset of cryptocurrency users who take advantage of decentralized financial services beyond basic transactions and investments. These users may interact with lending protocols, decentralized exchanges, stablecoins, governance voting, and other DeFi instruments. Adoption of decentralized finance is gradually rising but remains low relative to crypto overall.

The vast majority of everyday cryptocurrency owners and investors have yet to try DeFi applications. The learning curve for utilizing DeFi platforms remains quite steep, limiting adoption. But this is expected to change over time as usability improves.

Risks and Regulations

Cryptocurrencies carry investment risks that include high volatility, periods of mass liquidations, exchange hacks, and risk of technology obsolescence as new networks emerge. As decentralized assets, they also face uncertain global regulatory environments with everything from tolerance to outright bans.

DeFi adds a litany of new risks on top of the existing crypto risks including smart contract bugs/hacks, flawed tokenomics, flawed lending models, and centralization risks. Regulatory risk is also substantial given DeFi’s aim to disrupt regulated financial services without oversight. Risk management is far more complex with DeFi compared to simply buying and holding cryptocurrency.

Overall, while cryptocurrencies themselves are risky assets, DeFi amplifies those risks through unproven financial models and regulatory uncertainty. More advanced due diligence is required before investing in DeFi. Crypto is generally better understood by regulators while DeFi remains an enigma.

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Incentives and Governance

Cryptocurrencies rely on built-in incentive structures like block rewards and transaction fees to encourage nodes/miners to validate transactions and secure their respective networks. Changes to blockchain code require coordinating with the open-source developer community.

DeFi applications also utilize governance mechanisms and protocols to align incentives between platform users, liquidity providers, developers, and other stakeholders. Blockchain networks reward miners, but DeFi apps also reward liquidity providers, borrowers, traders, and insurers to build sustainable ecosystems.

While crypto networks handle governance at the blockchain level, DeFi governance must manage coordination across interconnected applications, underlying blockchains, fiat on-ramps, oracle services, DAOs, tokens, interest rates, risk parameters etc. Governing DeFi systems is far more complex than individual cryptocurrencies.

Interoperability

The cryptocurrency space suffers from a lack of interoperability between networks. For example, Bitcoin cannot natively interact with Ethereum. Users must go through centralized exchanges to trade between major cryptocurrencies. This fragmentation limits usability and value transfer.

DeFi aims to offer better interoperability and composability between applications. For example, lending protocols may plug into decentralized exchanges to enable borrowing for margin trades. Stablecoins can move seamlessly between insurance apps, liquidity pools, and lending markets. Properly designed DeFi apps integrate like Lego blocks.

DeFi also enables cross-chain bridges and liquidity pools that allow assets to move between blockchain networks. Crypto-based economies should theoretically operate more efficiently when connected through DeFi frameworks. The sum becomes greater than the parts.

Accessibility

To access and use cryptocurrency networks requires first obtaining crypto assets through centralized or decentralized exchanges. To invest in Bitcoin, you must go through exchanges like Coinbase. This introduces friction and excludes certain demographics from digital asset ownership.

Many DeFi protocols enable direct fiat on-ramps through collaborations with payment processors and ramp providers. Platforms like Aave allow using credit cards to directly purchase Ethereum that can be used on DeFi apps without going through an exchange. DeFi aims to be more accessible to the average consumer.

The DeFi ecosystem also offers many free applications like Uniswap and MetaMask for transacting and trading. More traditional financial services have high barriers to access while DeFi is built for inclusion and global reach. The gap in accessibility is expected to shrink over time.

In summary, while DeFi and crypto share certain attributes by virtue of operating on blockchain technology, significant differences exist between cryptocurrency coins facilitating payments compared to the expansive financial use cases enabled through decentralized finance. DeFi leverages the groundwork of foundational cryptocurrencies and blockchain networks to expand utility into financial services in a permissionless, interoperable manner not possible with traditional finance. The surface level similarities give way to profound differences upon deeper examination. The true innovation of DeFi goes far beyond cryptocurrency itself.

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Josiah Nang-Bayi, MD is a medical doctor by profession, an author, a financial literacy and digital assets enthusiast, an entrepreneur and a growing philanthropist.
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