The collapse of the Terra ecosystem, which subsequently depegged its algorithmic stablecoin TerraUSD (UST) value and crashed it to an all-time low of $0.30, has cast doubt over the future of not just algorithmic stablecoins but all stablecoins in general.
UST’s success and stability were intertwined with its sibling, LUNA, which creates arbitrage opportunities that, in theory, should keep UST’s price steady. If UST’s price drops below $1, it can be burned in exchange for LUNA, which lowers the supply of UST and raises its price.
Conversely, if UST’s price goes above a dollar, LUNA can be burned in exchange for UST, which increases the supply of UST and decreases its price. As long as conditions are normal and everything functions correctly, this creates both a mechanism and incentive for keeping the price of UST at $1.
Though algorithmic stablecoins are not usually backed by assets such as other stablecoins, the organization responsible for developing UST and the broader Terra ecosystem, the Luna Foundation Guard (LFG), has nevertheless built a war chest of Bitcoin (BTC) to be used in the event that the UST becomes depegged from the United States dollar.
The idea is that if UST’s price ever drops significantly, the BTC can be loaned out to traders who’ll use it to buy UST and push the price back up, repegging it to the dollar. So, when UST went into a deep dive, LFG deployed more than $1.3 billion dollars worth of BTC (42,000 coins at a price of $31,000 each) to traders who were going to use it to purchase UST, creating demand pressure and bolstering its price. However, that couldn’t save the collapsing ecosystem either, and the spiral effect eventually collapsed the price of the LUNA token as well as its stablecoin.
In the aftermath of the collapse, even centralized stablecoins, such as Tether’s USDT, lost their dollar peg, falling to a low of $0.95. Since stablecoins act as a bridge for various decentralized finance ecosystems, the Terra crash led to high volatility in the decentralized finance market.
Justin Rice, vice president of ecosystem at the Stellar Development Foundation, was pretty skeptical of the future of algorithmic stablecoins in light of the UST collapse. He told Cointelegraph:
“What we’re seeing now, and not for the first time, is an optimistic balancing mechanism unraveling due to natural human responses to market conditions. It is challenging to have algorithmic stablecoins keep their peg when things go sideways, and you have to rely on outside intervention to set things right.”
He also advocated for full transparency from stablecoin issuers with third-party audits. Denelle Dixon, CEO and executive director at the Stellar Development Foundation, hoped the recent debacle would push the conversation about stablecoin regulations among lawmakers. She told Cointelegraph:
“We’ve seen significant progress moving the conversation of stablecoin legislation in the United States. We’ve seen bills from both sides of the aisle that understand the issues and can move this industry forward by providing clarity and guardrails. We also know that this is a global issue and think the same rules should apply with respect to stablecoins and are working to help create that consistency.”
Stablecoin regulations around the globe
For a long time, stablecoins have been on the radar of regulators in many major economies, but the UST collapse acted as a catalyst, forcing U.S., South Korean and many European regulators to take note of the vulnerabilities in these not-so-stable digital dollar pegs.
U.S. regulators are using the incident as grounds to push for more stringent rules around stablecoins and their issuers, with Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen announcing plans for legislation by the end of the year.
Yellen said it would be “highly appropriate” to aim for a “consistent federal framework” on stablecoins by the end of 2022, given the growth of the market. She called for bipartisanship among members of Congress to enact legislation for such a framework.
These could easily be imposed on collateralized stablecoins, such as USD Coin (USDC) and USDT, which are backed by a traditional-style treasury and held by a centralized entity.
Max Kordek, co-founder of blockchain developer platform Lisk, believes the UST collapse will be used by lawmakers to push for central bank digital currencies (CBDC). He told Cointelegraph:
“Trust in algorithmic stablecoins is likely to have greatly diminished because of this incident, and it will be a while before that trust is restored. This will, unfortunately, be used by politicians as an example of why the world requires CBDCs. We don’t need CBDCs; what we do urgently need, though, is reliable, decentralized stablecoins.”
The Congressional Research Service, a legislative agency that supports the U.S. Congress, published a report on algorithmic stablecoins analyzing the UST crash. The research report described the LUNA crash as a “run-like” scenario that lead to several investors pulling out money from the ecosystem at the same time.
The research paper noted that these conditions in the traditional financial sector are protected by regulations that guard against such scenarios, but without any regulations in place, it might lead to market instability in the crypto ecosystem.
Jonathan Azeroual, vice president of blockchain asset strategy INX, told Cointelegraph:
“Algorithmic stablecoins backed by super volatile assets are especially at risk of a ‘run’ on the funds backing them if investors lose confidence in the mechanism created to ensure its stable value or simply if the value of the assets backing them falls below the amount of stablecoin issued.”
He believes the U.S. government will certainly attempt to expedite their power over regulating stablecoins, as it shows they are not a viable answer to a regulated digital economy. The regulators might require “stablecoins to be issued by federally regulated banks or by regulating them as securities, which will make them be overseen by the SEC [Securities and Exchange Commission].”
David Puth, CEO of the Coinbase-founded Centre Consortium, hoped for constructive regulations in the wake of the UST collapse. He told Cointelegraph:
“The fact remains that stablecoins are a critical piece of the growing crypto ecosystem, and industry organizations in the United States have been vocal about their desire for clear and constructive regulation.”
Puth is hoping for a “thoughtful and pro-innovation regulation that will keep the United States at the forefront of the blockchain economy.”
Apart from the U.S., South Korea is another nation that has gotten serious about stablecoins after the Terra collapse. The founder of Terra, Do Kwon, has been summoned before the country’s legislature for a hearing. A Korean regulatory watchdog has also started risk assessment of various crypto projects operating in the country.
The key lessons
While regulatory discussions around the stablecoins have gained pace in the light of the UST debacle, it has also highlighted that the crypto market has evolved enough to absorb a $40-billion run-down. This proved that the crypto market has grown enough to absorb a setback as big as Terra without posing a threat to broader market stability.
It’s essential to notice that the collapse of Terra, together with the overall market correction, has led to a cascade of second-order effects, such as increased exchange outflows, a significant spike in liquidations (most obviously in derivatives and decentralized finance), at least a temporary slowdown in DeFi (total-value locked and activity have decreased), and liquid staking issues.
Thomas Brand, head of institutions at Coinmotion — a Finnish virtual asset service provider — told Cointelegraph:
“Regulators, I assume, are especially interested in how crypto, and now especially stablecoin, risks might affect TradFi and CeFi via contagion and (in)direct exposure. Thus far, these risks have not materialized systemically. Still, regulators might pay closer attention to these matters soon — mainly if they conclude that at least some stablecoins remind a form of shadow banking.”
Terra wasn’t at this point a systemic risk but rather, its meltdown was limited, although effects could be seen throughout various interlinked ecosystems.
Derek Lim, head of crypto insights at Bybit exchange, told Cointelegraph that while the UST collapse has definitely attracted regulator scrutiny, the crypto market managed to recover without seeing colossal damage across the board. He explained:
“I would like to point out that one of the key concerns that U.S. regulators have made clear in several reports is that a stablecoin bank run could destabilize the broader financial system. This incident has shown that a bank run on the third-largest stablecoin by market cap has barely affected the wider crypto markets, let alone the S&P and beyond.”
Terra’s spiral disaster not only highlights the need for transparency from stablecoin issuers but the importance of a regulated market as well. With clear regulations in place, there would have been several gatekeepers to prevent small investors from losing their money. The event has already prompted regulators around the world to take notice.
The Terra collapse could prove to be a turning point for stablecoin regulations around the globe, quite similar to what Libra’s global stablecoin plans did for CBDCs — i.e., prompting regulators to accelerate their own plans.