Understanding Impermanent Loss

By Brian O'Connell · August 02, 2021 · 5 minute read

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Understanding Impermanent Loss

Impermanent loss can be a financial fact of life for cryptocurrency token holders – who may not even be aware it exists.

Impermanent loss involves a liquidity risk centered on the pricing algorithms used by so-called decentralized finance (DeFi) exchanges, which can impact portfolio asset values.

To define impermanent loss, cryptocurrency investors must first understand the difference between holding tokens in an automated market maker (AMM) and holding coins on your own, usually in a crypto wallet. (An AMM is a digitalized and decentralized cryptocurrency exchange protocol that uses its own statistical formula to set cryptocurrency prices.)

Liquidity providers act as a broker of sorts, by depositing an equal number of assets into the exchange, with two funded assets per liquidity pool. Liquidity providers stake their digital assets to earn trading fees made in the pool, with the size of the liquidity pool contribution. Impermanent loss is the opportunity cost that comes from staking crypto with an AMM.

Recommended: What Is DeFi (Decentralized Finance)?

As in-the-know crypto traders might say, impermanent loss could leave an investor rekt, meaning with a substantial loss.

What Is Impermanent Loss?

An impermanent loss is the money that a liquidity provider loses when the value of crypto deposited into an automated market maker, a type of DeFi exchange, differs from the value of that crypto if it were stored in a crypto wallet.

Pricing volatility can present an investment risk when liquidity-minded investors hold tokens in an AMM, and when those prices do diverge significantly, impermanent losses can mount up, impacting the value of an overall crypto portfolio.

However, the losses can be offset–completely or partially–by fees that the decentralized exchange pays for liquidity providers. Exchanges that have high volume tend to pay higher fees to liquidity providers, which can minimize the impermanent losses that leave investors at a net negative.

How Does Impermanent Loss Happen?

The key factor with impermanent loss is the way automated market makers work. As noted above, AMM’s enable investors to trade digital financial assets like cryptocurrencies without the permission of the token holder. AMMs allow for this type of trading by leveraging liquidity pools in lieu of the more stable and traditional form of asset trading, which relies on the “buyer-and-seller” stock exchange model.

AMMs allow any investor to fund a liquidity pool and act as a de facto market maker in pairing trades and charging trading fees. Impermanent risk is the downside risk in that scenario.

With volatile assets like cryptocurrency, over time the value of those assets may not equal the value they held when first deposited (i.e., their dollar value can shift downward or upward from the time of deposit to the time of withdrawal.) The more substantial the price change, the higher the chances the liquidity provider is exposed to impermanent loss.

How much can a liquidity pool funder lose? The science isn’t exact, but data indicates that an asset price change of just 1.25% can lead to a 0.6% deprecation in funded pool assets, relative to holding the assets in a digital wallet instead of using the assets to pair trades. A significantly higher price change of five times the initial price deposit could lead to a 25% decrease in asset value.

When pairing trades, liquidity pools may have one asset that’s relatively stable and one asset that is susceptible to higher pricing volatility. In that case, the odds of a significant loss impairment are higher than when the paired tokens are both stable and have a low exposure to impairment loss.

An Impermanent Loss Example

In an AMM scenario, the protocol’s decentralized structure digitalizes the cryptocurrency trading model, essentially setting a price between two different cryptocurrency assets. AMM uses an algorithm to set these prices on a constant basis, which can trigger volatility between the two assets.

Often, those assets can differ in structure. For instance, one cryptocurrency may be a stablecoin and the other can be a more volatile crypto asset, like Ethereum. In this scenario, the more volatile asset is Ethereum, which can change value quickly on trading markets, even as de-fi exchanges set prices on the cryptocurrency.

Ideally, exchanges want to offer equal liquidity levels when setting a price between two assets. Yet when one of the assets quickly rises or declines significantly in value, it changes the pricing structure. Now, the automated market’s trading price on stablecoin and Ethereum (using the above examples) is out of skew with the real value of the more volatile asset (Ethereum, in this case.) The markets will try to fix this pricing discrepancy, as traders wade in to the AMM to buy and invest in Ethereum at a discounted price. When enough traders do this, they drive the price up, and the AMM pricing structure once again is in balance.

Recommended: What Is a Stablecoin?

That scenario can have a major impact on the liquidity holder’s portfolio value. The liquidity provider, usually a cryptocurrency investor who leverages automated markets to find profit opportunities, may lose value based on the way AMM operates. When the provider trades on an AMM platform, they’re normally required to fund the two assets (as in the stablecoin and Ethereum example above) so traders can transition between the two assets by trading those assets in pairs.

When one of the paired asset prices is volatile, the investor can wind up with more of one of the cryptocurrency assets than expected, and less of the other. That hit to the current value of their portfolio assets compared to what the assets would be worth if left untraded, and kept stored in a digital wallet (that difference represents the impermanent loss).

It’s worth noting the loss in value may be temporary, if the value of the asset returns to the value at deposit, before the liquidity provider removes their crypto. Until then it’s an unrealized loss that only becomes permanent when the investor pulls their coins from the liquidity pool for good.

The Takeaway

Cryptocurrency investors are increasingly using liquidity pools to cull profits from automated market makers. In the process, liquidity-minded investors may be leaving themselves exposed to imperfect DeFi asset pricing, leading to impermanent loss that can reduce the value of their cryptocurrency portfolios.

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Crypto: Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies aren’t endorsed or guaranteed by any government, are volatile, and involve a high degree of risk. Consumer protection and securities laws don’t regulate cryptocurrencies to the same degree as traditional brokerage and investment products. Research and knowledge are essential prerequisites before engaging with any cryptocurrency. US regulators, including FINRA , the SEC , and the CFPB , have issued public advisories concerning digital asset risk. Cryptocurrency purchases should not be made with funds drawn from financial products including student loans, personal loans, mortgage refinancing, savings, retirement funds or traditional investments. Limitations apply to trading certain crypto assets and may not be available to residents of all states.


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