A stablecoin is a type of cryptocurrency whose value is tied to an outside asset, such as the U.S. dollar or gold, to stabilize the price.
Stablecoins try to tackle price fluctuations of cryptocurrencies by tying the value of cryptocurrencies to other more stable assets – usually fiat. Fiat is the government-issued currency we’re all used to using on a day-to-day basis, such dollars and euros, and it tends to stay stable over time.
Usually the entity behind the stablecoin will set up a “reserve” where it securely stores the asset backing the stablecoin – for example, $1 million in an old-fashioned bank (the kind with branches and tellers and ATMs in the lobby) to back up one million units of the stablecoin.
This is how a digital stablecoin and a real-world asset are tied together. The money in the reserve serves as “collateral” for the stablecoin. A user can theoretically redeem one unit of a stablecoin for one unit of the asset that backs it.
There is a more complex type of stablecoin that is collateralized by other cryptocurrencies rather than fiat yet still is engineered to track a mainstream asset like the dollar.
Maker, perhaps the most famous stablecoin issuer that uses this mechanism, accomplishes this with the help of Collateralized Debt Positions (CDPs), which lock up a user’s cryptocurrency collateral. Then, once the smart contract knows the collateral is secured, a user can use it to borrow freshly minted dai, the stablecoin.
A third variety of stablecoin, known as an algorithmic stablecoin, isn’t collateralized at all; instead, coins are either burned or created to keep the coin’s value in line with the target price. Say the coin drops from the target price of $1 to $0.75. The algorithm will automatically destroy a swathe of the coins to introduce more scarcity, pushing up the price of the stablecoin.
This type of stablecoin is much less popular so far. One of the most popular stablecoins following this model, basis, shut down in 2018 due to regulatory concerns.
Types of stablecoin collateral
Using this framework, stablecoins come in a range of flavors, and the collateralized stablecoins use a variety of types of assets as backing:
- Fiat: Fiat is the most common collateral for stablecoins. The U.S. dollar is the most popular among fiat currencies, but companies are exploring stablecoins pegged to other fiat currencies as well, such as BILIRA, which is pegged to the Turkish lira.
- Precious metals: Some cryptocurrencies are tied to the value of precious metals such as gold or silver.
- Cryptocurrencies: Some stablecoins even use other cryptocurrencies, such as ETHER, the native token of the Ethereum network, as collateral.