If you’ve been involved with DeFi at all, you almost certainly heard this term thrown around. Impermanent loss happens when the price of your tokens changes compared to when you deposited them in the pool. The larger the change is, the bigger the loss.
DeFi protocols like Uniswap, SushiSwap, or PancakeSwap have seen an explosion of volume and liquidity. These liquidity protocols enable essentially anyone with funds to become a market maker and earn trading fees. Democratizing market making has enabled a lot of frictionless economic activity in the crypto space.
So, what do you need to know if you want to provide liquidity for these platforms? In this article, we’ll discuss one of the most important concepts – impermanent loss.
What is impermanent loss?
Impermanent loss happens when you provide liquidity to a liquidity pool, and the price of your deposited assets changes compared to when you deposited them. The bigger this change is, the more you are exposed to impermanent loss. In this case, the loss means less dollar value at the time of withdrawal than at the time of deposit.
So why do liquidity providers still provide liquidity if they’re exposed to potential losses? Well, impermanent loss can still be counteracted by trading fees. In fact, even pools on Uniswap that are quite exposed to impermanent loss can be profitable thanks to the trading fees.
Uniswap charges 0.3% on every trade that directly goes to liquidity providers. If there’s a lot of trading volume happening in a given pool, it can be profitable to provide liquidity even if the pool is heavily exposed to impermanent loss. This, however, depends on the protocol, the specific pool, the deposited assets, and even wider market conditions.
How does impermanent loss happen?
Let’s go through an example of how impermanent loss may look like for a liquidity provider.
In addition, there’s a total of 10 ETH and 1,000 DAI in the pool – funded by other LPs just like Alice. So, Alice has a 10% share of the pool, and the total liquidity is 10,000.
If ETH is now 400 DAI, the ratio between how much ETH and how much DAI is in the pool has changed. There is now 5 ETH and 2,000 DAI in the pool, thanks to the work of arbitrage traders.
So, Alice decides to withdraw her funds. As we know from earlier, she’s entitled to a 10% share of the pool. As a result, she can withdraw 0.5 ETH and 200 DAI, totaling 400 USD. She made some nice profits since her deposit of tokens worth 200 USD, right? But wait, what would have happened if she simply holds her 1 ETH and 100 DAI? The combined dollar value of these holdings would be 500 USD now.
With that said, Alice’s example completely disregards the trading fees she would have earned for providing liquidity. In many cases, the fees earned would negate the losses and make providing liquidity profitable nevertheless. Even so, it’s crucial to understand impermanent loss before providing liquidity to a DeFi protocol.
Impermanent loss estimation
So, impermanent loss happens when the price of the assets in the pool changes. But how much is it exactly? We can plot this on a graph. Note that it doesn’t account for fees earned for providing liquidity.
Here’s a summary of what the graph is telling us about losses compared to HODLing:
- 1.25x price change = 0.6% loss
- 1.50x price change = 2.0% loss
- 1.75x price change = 3.8% loss
- 2x price change = 5.7% loss
- 3x price change = 13.4% loss
- 4x price change = 20.0% loss
- 5x price change = 25.5% loss
The risks of providing liquidity to an AMM
Frankly, impermanent loss isn’t a great name. It’s called impermanent loss because the losses only become realized once you withdraw your coins from the liquidity pool. At that point, however, the losses very much become permanent. The fees you earn may be able to compensate for those losses, but it’s still a slightly misleading name.
One last point is to look for more tried and tested AMMs. DeFi makes it quite easy for anyone to fork an existing AMM and add some small changes. This, however, may expose you to bugs, potentially leaving your funds stuck in the AMM forever. If a liquidity pool promises unusually high returns, there is probably a tradeoff somewhere, and the associated risks are likely also higher.