In its simplest form, decentralized finance is a system by which financial products become available on a public decentralized blockchain network, making them open to anyone to use, rather than going through middlemen like banks or brokerages. Unlike a bank or brokerage account, a government-issued ID, Social Security number, or proof of address are not necessary to use DeFi. More specifically, DeFi refers to a system by which software written on blockchains makes it possible for buyers, sellers, lenders, and borrowers to interact peer to peer or with a strictly software-based middleman rather than a company or institution facilitating a transaction.
Multiple technologies and protocols are used to achieve the goal of decentralization. For example, a decentralized system can consist of a mix of open-source technologies, blockchain, and proprietary software. Smart contracts that automate agreement terms between buyers and sellers or lenders and borrowers make these financial products possible. Regardless of the technology or platform used, DeFi systems are designed to remove intermediaries between transacting parties.
Though the volume of trading tokens and money locked in smart contracts in its ecosystem has been growing steadily, DeFi is an incipient industry whose infrastructure is still being built out. Regulation and oversight of DeFi are minimal or absent. In the future, however, DeFi is expected to take over and replace the rails of modern finance.
What Is DeFi?
The use of technology in financial services is not new. Most transactions at banks or other financial services companies are accomplished with the help of technology nowadays. However, the role of technology is restricted to being a facilitator of such transactions. Companies still have to contend with navigating the legalese of jurisdictions, competing financial markets, and different standards to make a transaction possible. With its stack of common software protocols and public blockchains to build them on, DeFi places technology at the front and center of transactions in the financial services industry.
DeFi is commonly placed in the domain of blockchain and cryptocurrencies. But its scope is much wider. To understand the thought processes that led to the development of decentralized finance, it is important to understand the current state of the finance ecosystem.
Modern financial infrastructure is built on a “hub and spoke” model. Key economic centers of activity, such as New York and London, function as operational hubs for the financial services industry and influence economic activity at spokes—regional centers or financial powerhouses like Mumbai or Milan that may not be as globally important as hubs but still function as nerve centers for their respective economies.
Economic prosperity or hardship radiate outward from hubs to spokes and toward the rest of the global economy. This model of interdependency is repeated in the functioning of global financial services corporations. They have headquarters in hubs and local branches, partnerships, or investments across the world. The sprawl of their operations means that the organization itself is subject to a phalanx of laws and regulations in each of its financial jurisdictions. Their reach has made such institutions systemically important to maintain the global economy’s balance and necessary to maintain or create new financial services infrastructure.
Though this model worked well in the last century, the financial crisis and, subsequently, the Great Recession, revealed the flaw in this architecture. The balance sheet problems for a couple of large financial institutions produced a domino effect of tumbling economies and the onset of the global recession.
Decentralized finance uses technology to disintermediate centralized models and enable the provisioning of financial services anywhere for anyone regardless of ethnicity, age, or cultural identity. DeFi services and apps are mostly built on public blockchains, and they either replicate existing offerings built on the rails of common technology standards or they offer innovative services custom-designed for the DeFi ecosystem. At the same time, DeFi applications provide users with more control over their money through personal wallets and trading services that explicitly cater to individual users instead of institutions.