Anyone who has dabbled in decentralised finance (DeFi) for even a short while would be aware of the importance of stablecoins – cryptocurrencies whose value is pegged to another asset, often fiat currency such as the US dollar. In a market like crypto where large price swings are the norm, stablecoins provide some semblance of sanity for market participants, serving as a relatively stable medium of exchange for other volatile crypto assets, or as an on-chain store of value, especially during risk-off periods.
If you ask most DeFi participants about which stablecoins they use or have heard of, chances are you will hear a few common names – USDT, USDC, BUSD and DAI – that are currently part of the top four stablecoins by market capitalisation. There is also UST, which was the third largest stablecoin by market capitalisation before its spectacular collapse in May 2022. Sitting below these established names is Frax Finance’s FRAX stablecoin, which has received much less attention even though it is now the fifth largest stablecoin by market capitalisation.
I believe Frax Finance remains an under-the-radar DeFi protocol that bears watching because it is not just trying to build a more well-designed stablecoin (i.e. FRAX), but leveraging it to acquire an outsized influence in the rapidly-growing DeFi space. In fact, in my previous essay on Olympus DAO, I characterised the protocol as a ”community-owned central bank”. But after learning about Frax Finance, I think the latter comes much closer to building DeFi’s version of a central bank, and it is doing this from ground up, starting with its FRAX stablecoin.
To understand how FRAX works, it is useful to situate it among the other stablecoins in existence, most of which fall squarely within two camps:
Both types of stablecoins come with their own set of limitations. Fully-collateralised stablecoins have to contend with custodial risk (are its collateral held in a secure place?) and face constraints regarding capital efficiency (their growth is limited by the availability of collateral). On the other hand, non-collateralised stablecoins tend not to inspire much confidence from market participants since they are largely unbacked, and therefore face a significant risk of a bank run that can completely obliterate their value, as shown in the case of Iron Finance’s IRON stablecoin, and most recently, Terra’s UST stablecoin.
Frax Finance took a middle-of-the-road approach with FRAX, by designing it to be a partially-collateralised stablecoin. This does not eradicate the limitations above, but it does moderate them. As a partially-collateralised stablecoin, FRAX is more capital efficient than fully-collateralised or overcollateralised stablecoins – it requires less collateral to maintain its peg. At the same time, by being partially backed (on top of other mechanisms which will be explained in the next section), market participants will feel more assured when using FRAX as compared to other non-collateralised stablecoins, resulting in a lower risk of a bank run.
The name of the FRAX stablecoin is derived from the term “fractional-algorithmic”, which reflects the mechanism by which FRAX maintains its peg to the US dollar, i.e. 1 FRAX = 1 USD.
FRAX is essentially an attempt to incorporate the principles of both fully-collateralised and non-collateralised stablecoins – a part of FRAX’s value is backed by collateral (predominantly USDC for now), while the remaining part is algorithmically stabilised with the help of another token (i.e. FXS, which is Frax Finance’s governance and utility token).
Like other stablecoins, FRAX maintains its peg to USD by allowing for arbitrage via expanding and contracting the supply of FRAX and FXS:
What sets FRAX apart from other stablecoins is the fact that it is not only partially collateralised, but that it also allows for a dynamic collateral ratio that is determined by the market. The protocol itself makes no assumption about what this collateral ratio should be, and simply keeps the ratio at whatever the market demands to ensure that each FRAX is priced at 1 USD. In a way, the collateral ratio at any given point in time reflects the extent of the market’s confidence in a non-collateralised stablecoin.
When FRAX was first launched in December 2020, the collateral ratio was set at 100%, and the protocol adjusted it once every hour in steps of 0.25%:
In February 2021, Frax Finance updated its mechanism to determine the collateral ratio, incorporating a metric called the “growth ratio”, which measures the amount of FXS available as liquidity on decentralised exchanges (DEXs) against the total supply of FRAX. Using this growth ratio helps the protocol to ensure that any reduction in the collateral ratio can be supported by the relative supply of FXS and FRAX.
After all, a larger supply of FRAX is harder to stabilise algorithmically. Hence, the protocol should only reduce the collateral ratio when there is sufficient liquidity for FXS (as reflected by a higher growth ratio) to support doing so. Otherwise, in the case of insufficient FXS liquidity (as reflected by a lower growth ratio), reducing the collateral ratio would mean that while users who redeemed their FRAX would get more newly-minted FXS, they would also face greater price slippage when selling these FXS. This may lead to undesirable negative feedback loops, such as a price collapse for FXS over time.
Due to FRAX’s dynamic collateral ratio, there are periods of time when the protocol has either too much or too little collateral. To correct for such surpluses or deficits, the protocol has built in two swap functions to rebalance the amount of collateral it has: buybacks and recollateralisations.
When the value of the collateral in the protocol dips below the current collateral ratio, a user can call the “recollateralise” function to check whether this is the case. If so, the user will be allowed to add collateral up to the amount needed to reach the target collateral ratio. In return, the user will get newly-minted FXS at a discount rate, which is set at 0.20%. This provides an incentive for arbitragers to recollateralise the protocol whenever there is a deficit in collateral.
On the other hand, when the value of the collateral in the protocol rises above the current collateral ratio, a user can call the “buyback” function to verify whether this is the case. If so, the protocol will use the excess collateral to swap for FXS and then burn it. This reduction in FXS supply will benefit all FXS holders, akin to how share buybacks work in the stock market.
Now that you understand how FRAX works as a stablecoin, it is time to look at how the protocol is able to accrue value for itself, and by extension, FXS holders.
Fundamentally, the value of FXS is tied to the demand and adoption of FRAX:
The key to increasing the value of FXS is therefore to ensure strong demand for FRAX.
There are a few common things that DeFi protocols do to build demand for their tokens, and not surprisingly, Frax Finance has been pursuing these as well:
While the market capitalisation of FRAX still pales that of the top four stablecoins, it has been steadily growing since FRAX was launched in December 2020. At the same time, much of the growth in FRAX’s market capitalisation occurred between October 2021 and the start of this year, just before the cooldown in DeFi markets that began in end-January and the much sharper downturn in May following Terra’s collapse.
This suggests that besides Frax Finance’s ongoing demand generating efforts as mentioned above, there may be other factors at play behind that sudden spurt of demand for FRAX in Q4 2021. Here, we turn to another of Frax Finance’s innovations, “Algorithmic Market Operations”, which started taking off around the same time period.
The concept of AMOs was first introduced by Frax Finance as part of its upgrade to Frax v2, announced in March 2021. These AMOs are enacted by smart contracts, which Frax Finance calls “AMO controllers”. They essentially enable Frax Finance to autonomously pursue market operations in ways that can drive greater value to the protocol, without jeopardising the peg and stability of FRAX, which is central to what Frax Finance is about.
As Sam Kazemian, the founder of Frax Finance, explained in his Medium post announcing Frax v2:
Simply put, an AMO controller is an autonomous contract that enacts arbitrary FRAX monetary policy so long as it does not lower the collateral ratio and change the FRAX price. This means that AMO controllers can perform open market operations algorithmically (that’s where they get their name), but they cannot simply mint FRAX out of thin air and break the peg. This keeps FRAX’s base layer stability mechanism pure and untouched which has been the core of what makes our protocol special and has inspired other smaller projects. It also keeps AMO controllers economically disciplined knowing that there is a ceiling for the amount of FRAX that can be unbacked which stops the protocol from unrestrained money printing of classical central banks.
Each AMO can be seen as a module that operates on top of Frax Finance’s base “fractional-algorithmic” mechanism. While each AMO can run different market operations and thus achieve different objectives for the protocol, they all share the following four functions which builds on the base mechanism:
Frax Finance has designed Frax v2 to incorporate multiple AMO controllers, with anyone able to propose, build and deploy AMOs, subject to the protocol’s governance process. Currently, the protocol has several AMOs in operation, with the key ones outlined below:
What is noteworthy about the impact of these AMOs was that since October 2021, the large amount of new FRAX that were minted seemed to have been through the AMOs, rather than the base mechanism. According to the FXS dashboard on Frax Finance’s website, there have not been much FXS burned since October 2021.
This seems counter-intuitive. After all, even if much of the new FRAX was minted by the AMOs (in particular the Curve AMO), shouldn’t the FXS1559 function work to buyback and burn FXS using the profits from the AMOs? This was how the AMOs were supposed to accrue value to FXS holders.
It turns out that the FXS1559 function is not the only way to do so. In fact, Frax Finance has also directly channelled its AMO profits to FXS holders who stake their FXS. Initially, 50% of the profit from the AMOs (i.e. yield that forms the protocol’s excess collateral) was used to buy and burn FXS via the FXS1559 function, while the other 50% was used to buy FXS and distribute them to those who stake their FXS as veFXS.
However, following a governance vote in October 2021, 100% of AMO profits have since been channelled to the latter, i.e. veFXS stakers. This was why there was not much burning of FXS since then. As outlined in the governance proposal, this move was to encourage the long-term holding of FXS, by increasing the yield from staking FXS as veFXS.
veFXS stands for vote-escrowed FXS. It is based off the vesting system pioneered by Curve Finance for its CRV token, which can be locked as veCRV. Essentially, users can lock up their FXS tokens and receive veFXS tokens in return, at a rate that depends on the duration of lock-up. Those that stake their FXS for the maximum time period of four years will receive 4 veFXS for every FXS locked, while those who do so for shorter time periods will receive fewer veFXS proportionally. The veFXS tokens are non-transferrable and a user’s veFXS balance will vest linearly, decreasing to 1 veFXS per 1 FXS at zero lock time remaining.
The intent of such a vesting system is to encourage long-term holding of FXS, since users receive more veFXS the longer they lock their tokens for. The utility of holding veFXS, to encourage users to even want to lock up their FXS in the first place, can be summed up by the following:
Having gone through the main ways in which Frax Finance is able to accrue value to FXS holders, the next important question for any potential FXS holder is how should one value FXS?
Since Frax Finance is a revenue-generating protocol (primarily through its AMOs), one way is to use the ratio of FXS’ market capitalisation and the protocol’s annualised earnings to get what is essentially the price-to-earnings (PE) ratio for the protocol. This ratio can serve as a rough measure of Frax Finance’s valuation when compared with other revenue-generating entities.
Given the rather significant price movements over the past month following Terra’s collapse, I thought to calculate Frax Finance’s PE ratio before and after that unfortunate incident, using two arbitrary dates: 1 May and 28 May.
Frax Finance’s trailing PE ratio (based on earnings in the past 12 months) is around 18.96 on 1 May 2022 and 11.80 on 28 May 2022. This is actually significantly lower than the trailing PE ratio for the S&P 500 and Nasdaq 100 as reflected below, but bear in mind that this is an apples-to-oranges comparison. In fact, if I were to narrow down the comparison to real-world companies that are most similar to Frax Finance, i.e. traditional banks, the protocol’s valuation is still higher.
In any case, comparing against other DeFi protocols will be more instructive, but likewise, the limitation is that each protocol is designed differently and there nothing quite like Frax Finance and its AMOs on the market now. A decent comparison could be with MakerDAO, which is a decentralised autonomous organisation (DAO) managing the DAI stablecoin, and earns revenue from fees paid by users for borrowing DAI. Between May 2021 and April 2022, MakerDAO reported a net protocol income of USD 130.9 million. As of 1 May 2022, its market capitalisation was USD 1.31 billion based on its MKR token, which translated to a trailing PE ratio of around 10.01. As of 28 May 2022, assuming MakerDAO’s profits in the past 12 months remain constant, its trailing PE ratio based on the market capitalisation of MKR then would be around 8.01.
From this, you can see that Frax Finance has a more demanding valuation than MakerDAO. That said, another perspective is that Frax Finance probably has a higher growth potential, given that the partially-collateralised FRAX is more capital-efficient than the over-collateralised DAI. Furthermore, the market capitalisation of FRAX is still only about one-quarter that of DAI – if the supply of FRAX continues to grow, chances are that much more value can further accrue to Frax Finance.
Of course, there are many more ways to assess the valuation of a potential investment, and to do so more rigorously. But my primary aim to use the PE ratios was to simply show that the valuation of Frax Finance is not crazy. FXS could even be considered under-valued when compared against growth stocks, given that the current trailing PE ratio for the Nasdaq 100 is at 25.43. Moreover, unlike many of these companies which are not even profitable in the first place, Frax Finance already has a sustainable source of income through its AMOs that it can further grow as it works to expand the use of FRAX across DeFi.
Ultimately, investing is more than just assessing financial statements and valuations. It is also about making calculated (and optimistic) bets on the future, which often may not have a quantifiable basis. So the most salient question for me when looking at Frax Finance is more than just whether it is fairly-valued today, but whether it has a compelling and achievable long-term vision – an end-game that it can works towards and bring into reality.
Sam has been clear about Frax Finance’s end-game – to achieve what he calls the “holy trinity” of DeFi, in which a protocol is able to have its own stablecoin, liquidity ecosystem, as well as lending market. This essentially allows the protocol to not only issue its own currency (its stablecoin), but also control the supply and demand of its currency (via its liquidity ecosystem and lending market). This is very much like how actual central banks work, which buy and sell securities on the open market to influence money supply in their respective jurisdictions.
Frax Finance has been building towards this “holy trinity” systematically:
Besides working towards the “holy trinity”, it is also worth noting that Frax Finance is building another innovative product – the Frax Price Index (FPI) stablecoin whose value tracks the 12-month Consumer Price Index in the US. In other words, FPI is designed to be an inflation-adjusted stablecoin that can serve as a true store of value. It is meant to track inflation through the yield generated from the FRAX used to mint FPI. As the detailed documentation for FPI is still being worked on, the exact mechanisms by which this yield would be generated is not yet clear.
Nevertheless, if Frax Finance can ensure that FPI is able to generate sustainable yield to track inflation over the long term, it would serve as yet another way to entrench the protocol across various use cases in DeFi: transactions (with FRAX), trading (with Fraxswap), borrowing/lending (with Fraxlend), and capital preservation (with FPI).
Of course, like virtually all projects in the nascent and largely experimental DeFi space, Frax Finance still faces significant risks. These would include:
At the end of the day, as Sam has acknowledged, Frax Finance is “highly experimental and risky”. There is every chance that the protocol can fail, from the risks stated above and beyond. With that in mind, it is imperative that one should not be going all in on FRAX or FXS. Even if the potential rewards seem attractive, always be sure to diversify your investments. After all, nothing is ever certain in this world.
I was only able to write this essay in fits and starts over the course of more than two months due to my full-time work commitments. During this time, I have witnessed both ends of the hope-fear spectrum regarding Frax Finance:
That said, regardless of market sentiments, what I have seen from Sam and his team have been a steadfast commitment to continue building, and to make the protocol as solid as it can be. In fact, Sam has written that he wants “FRAX to be as safe as the best”, and that “just because FRAX is and has been at peg always doesn’t mean we can’t make it better”. As a holder of a small amount of FXS, this growth mindset is reassuring to me.
Protocols that will survive the current bear market will be those that are built to last. From what I can see, Frax Finance fits into this mold. While it is impossible to predict the movement of markets over the short term, I still remain optimistic about the value proposition of DeFi, and Frax Finance’s potential to occupy a strong position in this nascent yet fast-evolving space over the long term. The design of FRAX seems fundamentally sound, and the protocol’s AMOs appear to be well-placed to expand the supply of FRAX and generate revenue for FXS holders sustainably.
My hope is that Sam and his team can continue building on their good work so far, and see through their vision of creating DeFi’s equivalent of a modern central bank – one that will keep on chugging away to make sure that our future on-chain economies remain stable as much as possible, with ample liquidity and sustainable credit facilities.
Disclaimer: Nothing in this essay constitutes financial advice. Please do your own research and be mindful of your own investment objectives before investing into any cryptocurrencies, DeFi protocols or NFTs.