What Is the Stablecoin Trilemma?
What Is the Stablecoin Trilemma?

What Is the Stablecoin Trilemma?

Published Jun 11, 2024

Key Takeaways

  • The stablecoin trilemma refers to the challenge of creating a stablecoin that balances decentralization, price stability, and capital efficiency.

  • Different types of stablecoins, such as fiat-backed, crypto-backed, and algorithmic, prioritize different aspects of the trilemma, leading to various trade-offs.

  • Potential solutions for the stablecoin trilemma include hybrid models, risk management strategies, and advanced algorithms.


Stablecoins are cryptocurrencies designed to track the value of an underlying asset, such as a fiat currency. However, creating a stablecoin that balances decentralization, price stability, and capital efficiency is challenging. In this article, we will explore the stablecoin trilemma, its key components, different types of stablecoins and their trade-offs, and potential solutions.

What Is the Stablecoin Trilemma and Why Does It Exist?

The stablecoin trilemma refers to the challenge of designing stablecoins that can simultaneously achieve three key attributes: decentralization, price stability, and capital efficiency. Each of these aspects is crucial for the effective performance of stablecoins, but achieving the optimal level for all three at once has proven to be a significant challenge.

The stablecoin trilemma exists because each attribute inherently conflicts with the others. For instance, price stability often demands strong collateral backing, which can reduce capital efficiency due to the need for over-collateralization. Capital efficiency aims to minimize the amount of required collateral, but this can lead to risks in price stability. 

Components of the Stablecoin Trilemma


Decentralization refers to the distribution of control and decision-making away from a central authority. In the context of stablecoins, decentralization means that a stablecoin is guided by multiple control points instead of a single central authority and its peg is maintained through protocols and algorithms. It is important to note that this is an ideal case of a decentralized stablecoin and most stablecoins are still partially or fully centralized.

Price stability

Price stability in stablecoins means maintaining a consistent value pegged to an underlying asset, such as a fiat currency. This is crucial for their use as a medium of exchange and a safe store of value over time, even during periods of market volatility. In practice, this allows people to use stablecoins for everyday transactions, much like they would use traditional money.

For example, if a stablecoin is pegged to the US dollar, 1 stablecoin should always be worth 1 USD. This means that you can buy a cup of coffee today and know that its price in stablecoins will be the same tomorrow, next week, or next month. 

Furthermore, people in countries with high inflation can use stablecoins to protect their savings. For instance, in Argentina, the local currency has experienced significant inflation, reducing its purchasing power. Many have turned to stablecoins to preserve their savings from rapid devaluation.

Capital efficiency

Capital efficiency refers to how well a stablecoin uses its backing assets (collateral) to keep its value steady. Think of it as how much value the stablecoin needs to keep in reserve to ensure each stablecoin unit is worth exactly what it should be. The higher the collateral required to keep a stablecoin value, the less capital-efficient it is. 

For example, a stablecoin that requires $1.50 worth of collateral to issue $1 worth of stablecoins is less capital efficient than one that only requires $1.10 of collateral for the same $1 issuance.

A practical example of a capital-inefficient stablecoin is DAI. For instance, imagine that to issue $1 worth of DAI, a user might need to lock up $1.50 worth of ether (ETH). This helps maintain DAI's stability but is capital inefficient because it ties up more value than the stablecoin itself represents.

Types of Stablecoins and Their Trade-Offs

Fiat-backed stablecoins

Fiat-backed stablecoins are cryptocurrencies that are backed by reserves of fiat currency held by a central entity. Popular examples of fiat-backed stablecoins include Tether (USDT) and USD Coin (USDC). 

While fiat-backed stablecoins can maintain a stable price and are capital efficient (meaning they use the reserve money effectively), they rely on a centralized structure. This means that price stability and capital efficiency come at the cost of decentralization.

Algorithmic stablecoins

Algorithmic stablecoins are stablecoins that use algorithms to maintain their peg (i.e., keep their value stable). For instance, the algorithms may automatically adjust the supply of an algorithmic stablecoin to help it stay at a fixed value. If the price starts to rise, the algorithms create more coins to bring the price down. If the price falls, they reduce the supply to push the price back up.

Algorithmic stablecoins aim to be decentralized and capital-efficient but often struggle with price stability. The reason is that their stability heavily depends on market demand and algorithms that may fail and depeg under pressure.

Crypto-backed stablecoins

Crypto-backed stablecoins are stablecoins that are backed by other cryptocurrencies. Imagine a stablecoin that promises to always be worth $1. To ensure this value, you secure it by locking up more than $1 worth of another cryptocurrency in a digital vault. For example, to get $1 worth of this stablecoin, you might need to deposit $1.50 worth of ETH. The extra $0.5 acts as a safety net to absorb changes in the value of the ETH and help keep the stablecoin’s value fixed at $1. 

Crypto-backed stablecoins are typically overcollateralized to mitigate the volatility of the collateral. While they achieve a degree of decentralization and price stability, they are often capital-inefficient because they require excess collateral to ensure stability.

One of the most popular crypto-backed stablecoins is DAI. It uses ether and other cryptocurrencies as collateral to maintain its value close to $1.

Solving the Stablecoin Trilemma

There is no perfect solution to the stablecoin trilemma, but various ideas have been proposed to address the problem.

Hybrid models

Hybrid models combine elements of different stablecoin types to solve the stablecoin trilemma. For example, a stablecoin might be partially collateralized with both fiat and crypto assets. This can potentially enhance capital efficiency while maintaining a degree of decentralization and stability.

Advanced algorithms

Advanced algorithms are designed to improve the stability and resilience of stablecoins. The goal is to reduce the dependency of algorithmic stablecoins on market sentiment and enhance their ability to withstand market fluctuations, helping them efficiently maintain price stability. 

Algorithmic stablecoins can achieve great levels of capital efficiency and decentralization. If they could also efficiently maintain price stability, they would potentially solve the trilemma. In practice, however, that’s easier said than done.

Insurance and risk management

Incorporating insurance mechanisms and risk management strategies can provide an additional layer of security for stablecoins. This may involve setting aside funds to cover potential collateral failures or implementing protocols to manage liquidity and volatility risks.

Closing Thoughts

The stablecoin trilemma highlights the challenge of balancing decentralization, price stability, and capital efficiency in a stablecoin. Different stablecoin types prioritize different aspects of the trilemma, leading to various trade-offs. Potential solutions include hybrid models, advanced algorithms, and risk management strategies.

Further Reading

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