The digital asset world has evolved from niche obscurity to headline news.
How digital assets are democratizing the world of investing.
Those in and outside the financial services industry are seeking to reconcile this emerging technology and its impact on the ecosystem of investing. While predicting what the future of digital assets will be remains the purview of others, we acknowledge and embrace the notion that digital assets are indeed having a material impact on the landscape of global investing.
For this Pulse on the Future blog post, I invited my colleagues, Justin Hayer and Chris Bell, to share their perspectives on how digital assets are democratizing the investment world. -- Russ Kliman
Digital assets and distributed ledger technology (DLT), such as blockchain are fostering paradigm shifts in the way we create, process, interact, and transfer value. The space is still relatively nascent, terminology is still enigmatic at times, and there remains a large degree of uncertainly and opaqueness with regulatory and tax compliance, which hinders broader institutional adoption.
However, for the right use cases, the benefits of decentralization, trustless consensus, transparency and the automation of complex functions through code, can enable the financial services ecosystem to streamline outdated processes like payments, settlements, reconciliation and capital formation (to name a few). When evaluating the impact of investment opportunities, it’s hard to ignore the potential of what these technologies can do and their influence on existing investment themes, technically or fundamentally. It remains a speculative environment, but let’s dive into some key themes.
Digital assets and blockchain technology are removing many investment barriers to entry and bottlenecks in the traditional financial system. Consider that anyone with an internet connection or smartphone can invest in digital assets, regardless of their network, location, nationality, affiliation, or accreditation. While the assets themselves are borderless and natively handle fractionalization, they also provide new opportunities to the under-banked. Users in the digital asset ecosystem gain access to a wide range of new markets and financial products, most of which were previously accessible to only institutions, accredited investors, and the ultra-wealthy.
For example, decentralized protocols such as Aave and Maker allow users to borrow against their digital asset collateral. Decentralized exchanges such as Uniswap allow users to trade tokens that may not be available in centralized local exchanges and open new investment opportunities. Liquidity pools and automated market maker (AMM) protocols allow users to deposit tokens to participate in the business of market making and earn fees (and experience the risk) for providing liquidity.
Digital assets are also providing new means in the raising of capital, and in a dramatically different fashion than traditional venture capital or angel investing. By issuing a token, a startup project can now tap into a larger pool of investors—beyond the traditional VC fund—including, for the first time, the retail investor. These early investors are afforded a degree of liquidity not found in traditional markets, as the token they receive can be traded almost immediately against other digital assets (typically via a decentralized finance protocol). In fact, the project’s token can actually have liquid markets, even before they launch their product. Raising capital via a digital asset issuance is an order of magnitude quicker than raising capital via traditional means, and that provides projects a quicker path to obtain the funding to build and launch. At the same time, the retail investor can access these investment opportunities, which while highly speculative, offer an opportunity for asymmetric returns that previously were inaccessible.
As always, there are trade-offs. Methods of issuance are under regulatory debate, new frontiers present new risks, and users of these tools will encounter a wide range of new challenges, such as wallet security, smart contract interaction, impermanent loss, and bridge hacks.
The creator economy, or Web 3.0, are terms thrown around when you mention digital assets or blockchain. Web 3.0 is built on the infrastructure of digital assets and blockchain protocols, which has allowed a shift in ownership and control of user data, their privacy, and creative content—away from centralized “Web 2.0” companies and back to the creators.
To explain this, it helps to step through the evolution:
We are currently in the midst of the Web 2.0 to Web 3.0 transition. One could argue there will always be a Web 2.5, where for those organizations and individuals that choose not to or cannot fully adopt the responsibility and risk of controlling their data or finances, there will continue to be centralized entities that provide pathways for you to interact with Web 3.0 ecosystems. A question we might ask ourselves is, who stands to win or lose if creators find more value in Web 3.0 platforms?
You can buy a company’s stock and/or buy a company’s products, but typically an investor doesn’t get one by buying the other. For example, if you buy Netflix stock, you still need to pay for the Netflix subscription to stream content. Having a Netflix subscription doesn’t grant you any voting rights on how Netflix should strategically operate or change its content lineup.
In digital assets and blockchain, we see these concepts converge in various ways. Not only can an investor benefit financially from owning a crypto token/NFT that constitutes ownership of the Web 3.0 entity or its applications, but they can also gain voting rights, special access, “ownership rights,” and perks to the entity’s platform, product, and ecosystem.
As an example, Sushiswap, a popular Ethereum-based decentralized exchange (DEX), provides a governance token called SUSHI. The SUSHI token acts as a governance vote for changes to the protocol and structure of economics within those LP relationships, and it also represents the fee income allocation taken into account when transaction fees are collected from swap trades across the available crypto asset pairs, and paid out to token holders.
Unlike traditional investing, where an investor receives proxy voting rights, blockchain and digital assets provide investors with the opportunity for direct participation in the day-to-day governance of network decisions, product strategy, and protocol roadmaps.
Through decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs), anyone within the ownership structure, referred to as token holders, can participate in governance, usually either by proposals and votes via their wallet app. While on public networks, such as Ethereum, individuals can own crypto assets and also directly participate in the success of the network by becoming a node operator, validator, miner, or liquidity provider by setting up a desktop or laptop machine that meets the minimum system requirements.
Recently, the Uniswap DAO passed a governance proposal where the protocol will test introducing a fee mechanism, similar to SUSHI, into some of the protocol’s liquidity pools, which many believe will strengthen the “tokenomics” (token-economics) of its utility token UNI through direct value accrual. Anyone holding the UNI token could have participated in the vote by simply connecting their crypto currency wallet app to the Uniswap app and navigating to the governance UI.
MakerDAO, the organization that oversees the Maker protocol, achieved a historic governance milestone when they voted yes to integrate Huntingdon Valley Bank into a pseudo-collateral lending facility, which is the first of its kind in decentralized finance. MKR token-holders were able to participate in the vote.
In addition to the four major themes above, there are additional themes shaping how digital assets are influencing the investment ecosystem, including:
Here’s a closing nugget on wealth transfer. According to Cerulli Associates,1 from now until 2045, upwards of $73 trillion is expected to pass down to heirs and beneficiary generations that happen to fall into the most crypto-friendly and tech-savvy. With that as a backdrop, it would not be a significant stretch to imagine that some of this wealth will transfer from traditional assets to digital investment vehicles. This sizable wealth transfer could be an opportunity or risk, depending on the reaction and strategy of incumbent financial service organizations. Those who provide the right access, tools, safety, and support for these changing paradigms stand to gain, while those hesitant of change may find themselves on the losing end of the future wealth transfer.