With Sinclair Davidson, published in Coindesk, 13 April 2021
The controversy surrounding the launch of the Fei stablecoin protocol last week reveals a lot about DeFi’s problems with tokenomics. We know what a governance token offers its holders – the right to vote on changes to fees, and the protocol itself. But what should these rights be worth?
The Fei protocol is engineered to maintain stability against the U.S. dollar by charging a penalty for selling and a bonus for buying the Fei token when it is below the $1 peg. It is an innovative design, albeit highly experimental. But as Fei has drifted further and further from the peg since launch, early buyers found themselves in the unfortunate position of being unable to liquidate their positions without taking substantial loss.
By the end of the week, Fei suspended the penalties and rewards to try to stabilize the protocol. Until then, these mechanisms were functioning exactly as intended. Careful investors would have seen everything spelled out in the Fei white paper.
We might say this is a simple “buyer beware” story. But it is complicated by the simultaneous airdrop and distribution of Fei’s governance token, TRIBE, that was intended to allocate control rights over the protocol itself. In practice, buyers were trading an appreciating asset (ETH) for a stablecoin (FEI) to get access to the real prize: TRIBE.
In the crypto and DeFi industry many think that governance is just about voting. Voting is important of course – it is the governing part of governance. But it is only a part. In the traditional corporate world, governance rights come with a complex and coherent set of rights and obligations clearly tied to the underlying value of the firm.
Share ownership represents a right to the cash flow of the company, and a residual claim over the company’s assets if, for whatever reason, it is wound up. The structure of these rights are the result of hundreds of years of evolution in corporate governance.
If voting rights and the rights over the cashflow and the assets of the firm are misaligned, there can be perverse results. In crypto, we shouldn’t just want governance token-holders to vote. We should want them to vote well – making governance choices that are shaped by their interest in increasing the value produced by the protocol, and their knowledge that they will benefit directly from those choices.
The initial “investors” in Fei are not really investors in FEI at all. They are customers who spent ETH to buy FEI. And there is an important difference between being a customer and an owner. The difference between being able to complain – to Tweet about how you’ve been wronged – and the ability to do something to recover your money. Because of the design of Fei’s “protocol controlled value” pool of ETH, FEI holders have no residual ownership claim over the ETH, just the right to sell their new FEI on a secondary market.
What governance rights FEI holders have is only as a result of being airdropped TRIBE, a fork of Compound’s COMP token. Like COMP and many other DeFi governance tokens, TRIBE gives voting rights, but does not allocate cash flow rights.
True, TRIBE holders might in the future vote for protocol amendments that allocate those rights. Even so, the token at best represents an option to participate in unspecified governance that might result in cash flow, but might not.
The crisis happened because an unexpectedly large number of people bought into FEI to get TRIBE, and then tried to sell out of FEI. That’s understandable: nobody wants to hold a stablecoin in a bull market. This rush for the exits triggered Fei’s penalty and reward nosedive.
There is a subtle but critical lesson here. If the unique selling proposition of your crypto-economic system is predictability and stability – as it must be for a stablecoin – having the initial demand for that coin driven by a highly speculative governance token that will offer ambiguous future rights is asking for trouble.
Indeed, it is a lesson that ought to be considered by all token designers in the DeFi world, not just stablecoins. The decision not to specify how value accrues to governance tokens is not just risky for investors. It is risky for the protocol itself.
For example, online chatter suggests that if Fei’s future had been put to a governance vote over the course of the week, there would have been substantial support for distributing its enormous ETH treasury back to FEI buyers. This would have recouped individual losses, but probably also have wound the protocol up entirely.
The Fei protocol is trying to do a lot of innovative work at once. If it turns out to be a success, it won’t have been the only successful protocol that had a rocky bootstrapping phase. But it should offer future protocols a critical lesson in tokenomics.
Governance tokens are one of the most interesting innovations in DeFi. They seem to offer a fast path to decentralization, handing over control from entrepreneurs to a distributed community as quickly as possible, at, after, or even before launch. But the role of governance cannot be an afterthought – a bolt-on that can be pushed to a governance token and left to unknown future decision-makers.
Governance is the philosophical and economic heart of the blockchain and cryptocurrency industry. After all, decentralization is nothing if not the decentralization of governance. As Fei shows, dumping protocol governance onto a speculative token with unclear cash flow and ownership rights introduces a lot of instability into already ambitious protocols.