What does DeFi need to go mainstream?
Haven’t we all been frustrated at one point in time with high transaction fees charged by banks, while at the same time waiting for days for transactions (particularly remittances) to be processed? Or by the increasing loans’ interest rates? Banks have also long been accused of overcharging customers by failing to pass on central banks’ interest rate hike to savers, while ramping up loans and mortgages.
To save us all from the shortcomings of traditional finance, the world of DeFi, or decentralised finance, has emerged. Utilising blockchain and smart contracts, DeFi comes with the promise to resolve some of the key issues with existing finance such as high transaction fees, long processing times, and financial exclusion, and could render traditional finance institutions such as banks and credit card issuers obsolete.
By removing traditional intermediaries such as banks, DeFi challenges the dominant centralised financial system, empowering everyday individuals through peer-to-peer transactions.
Just think of this scenario: With DeFi, individuals can directly lend their savings to others, and earn an interest rate usually between 3% and 8%. Compare this to the easy-access savings rates provided by some of the biggest banks in the UK, which are between 0.7% and 1.35%.
This new world represents an unbundling and democratisation of traditional finance by placing financial services such as lending, borrowing, and trading, in the hands of individuals.
Despite its many promises, DeFi hasn’t gone mainstream. Stubborn inflation and unsettling macroeconomic conditions have led to a declining interest in Bitcoin, the world’s largest and best-known crypto currency. This has prompted many to refer to this period as yet another ‘crypto winter’.
Further, DeFi still accounts for approximately only 1% of the total global financial assets market. In fact, research states that only 15 to 20% of small businesses are utilising DeFi services for financing or lending.
So, several factors must be tackled before the DeFi movement can progress.
Crossing the chasm
One issue that arises is the usability of DeFi applications. Consumers are familiar with how traditional banking works as they have been exposed to financial services in their day-to-day life.
The sector also worked hard to ensure that online banking, trading systems and any novel applications (e.g., peer-to-peer payments) are user-friendly. The challenge for DeFi providers is to exceed that level of usability to drive fast consumer adoption.
Scalability issues, surrounding both technical and environmental perspectives, remain another challenge. Widespread discussions have revolved around the computational and energy efficiency hurdles in Bitcoin mining. While improvements have been made with, for instance, Ethereum’s move to its less energy intensive proof-of-stake consensus mechanism, much more work is needed to manage a substantial surge efficiently and sustainably in growing transactions.
There are also the issues of interoperability between distinct blockchains. In centralised finance, regulation has eased the process of transferring funds between providers, while open banking standards hold the potential to further simplify this procedure.
It will be crucial for DeFi platforms and blockchain protocols to have the ability to seamlessly communicate and integrate with one another to unlock enhanced liquidity, user-friendliness and innovation.
Regulation and security
Despite the immutability of a blockchain, which makes it exceptionally difficult to tamper with, the broader landscape of DeFi faces notable vulnerability to hacking, thereby exposing the possibility of funds being stolen or lost.
If DeFi’s full potential is to be unlocked, it requires security improvements of the blockchain protocols supporting these platforms to make them less susceptible to hacking. On top of this, there is a general lack of consumer protection for investments in DeFi today.
While regulators guarantee deposits in mainstream centralised finance, no such protection exists for individuals involved in DeFi. Therefore, when banks failed during the 2008 financial crisis, consumers were heavily protected from the fallout, but a different scenario unfolded when the crypto exchange FTX collapsed, leading to consumers losing billions.
This user protection needs to extend to consumers falling victim to fraud and scams, sadly common within the sector – for instance, during the wave of Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs) a few years ago.
Building trust among mainstream users involves protection measures against potential risks, providing easily accessible solutions.
DeFi’s acceptance will be based on various social factors, such as the growing concern for financial inclusion. Questions remain whether DeFi is effectively fulfilling its pledge to offer financial services to otherwise excluded groups.
It is essential to broaden access for individuals currently excluded from traditional financial systems, such as those labelled unbanked or underbanked, to achieve mainstream adoption.
Are there enough educational resources available to help users understand DeFi concepts and associated risks? DeFi should be clarified by widespread education and awareness campaigns, encouraging more individuals to explore these technologies.
DeFi providers must enhance their value proposition to guarantee substantial and tangible advantages over traditional providers. To attract users away from traditional alternatives, its benefits, such as reduced fees, faster transactions, greater financial control, or increased returns are required and should be made clear.
If DeFi can address all the issues addressed here, then it stands a better chance of achieving mainstream acceptance. Doing so will require a combination of regulatory developments, user behaviour shifts, technological advancements, and broader societal changes.
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