Synthetic assets, or synths, are assets that simulate other assets. They are used primarily by traders who want to gain exposure to securities, commodities, or other financial tools that they would otherwise not be able to trade.
Similar concepts exist in traditional finance. For instance, commodity traders in traditional markets rarely trade physical bars of gold or barrels of oil. Instead, they trade financial instruments such as futures which derive their value from the underlying real-world assets. In crypto, synths can represent gold, fiat currencies, or even other cryptocurrencies.
The Synthetix protocol provides an infrastructure for issuing (through minting) synths, such as synthetic versions of BTC (sBTC), USD (sUSD), and more, through asset overcollateralization. That collateral is provided in the form of the Synthetix Network Token (SNX), which also serves as the utility token of the ecosystem. SNX is used for staking rewards and decentralized governance through community voting.
In addition to collateralizing synths, Synthetix also supports crypto derivatives markets like futures and options trading. While it does not provide its own user-facing derivatives platforms, Synthetix supplies the back-end financial infrastructure and liquidity needed to run them. This is why Synthetix calls itself “the derivatives liquidity protocol.”
How was Synthetix developed?
Synthetix was created under the name “Havven” in 2017. Its whitepaper was penned by Samuel Brooks, Anton Jurisevic, Michael Spain, and Kain Warwick. At that time, Havven was conceived as a stablecoin protocol similar to the one founded by Maker, which issues the DAI stablecoin. However, it rebranded to Synthetix soon after its formal public introduction in 2018, as its focus shifted to the minting and trading of synths.
Synthetix has undergone many changes as a result of the ups and downs of the crypto market over the years. As recently as 2021, it offered synths that followed real-world securities like stocks (such as AAPL, TSLA, and GOOG). It also offered “inverse” synths like iBTC, which mirrors the inverse price of bitcoin and allows traders to short the cryptocurrency. However, with time, these were abandoned by the project, which many have speculated was due to regulatory concerns.
Under the name Havven, the project raised $30 million during an initial coin offering (ICO) in 2018. Synthetix has since undergone multiple private funding rounds since 2017, including one raising $20 million in March 2023 from Singapore-based DWF Labs.
How does Synthetix work?
Synthetix operates on Ethereum, but many of its efforts are also available on the Optimism layer 2 solution (L2) for Ethereum, which helps traders minimize gas fees.
Synthetic assets (spot synths)
The Synthetix protocol enables the creation of synths that can be used in the large—and growing— world of decentralized finance (DeFi). Minting synths only requires traders to provide collateral by staking SNX tokens. However, the value of the staked tokens must be more than the value of the minted synthetic assets to account for the potential volatility of SNX. Stakers are also awarded more SNX for providing liquidity to Synthetix.
The value of synthetic tokens is determined by price oracles which provide off-chain data to blockchain-based systems (like Synthetix), so that the data is reliable and constantly updated. For instance, the price of Bitcoin is fed from an oracle to Synthetix to assure the accurate price of sBTC, a 1:1 representation of BTC.
Derivatives are financial tools that derive their own value from that of another asset.
Derivatives traders typically post collateral to borrow additional capital (“use margin”) in order to trade larger value than they would otherwise be able to. In the traditional market, traders trade on margin through their brokers. In the Synthetix derivatives DeFi protocol, liquidity (or assets available to be borrowed) comes from tokens available in Synthetix liquidity pools (more below).
Through this mechanism, Synthetix provides liquidity to various derivative trading platforms thanks to the SNX staked on its platform. Its particular focus is a type of crypto-specific derivative called perpetual futures, or “perps.” As with spot synths, the protocol relies on oracles for pricing data and arbitrage to keep Synthetix markets consistent with prevailing market prices.
How is the SNX token used?
SNX is used for staking on the Synthetix platform. Both spot synths and perps require staked crypto as collateral, making Synthetix’s staking mechanism vital to its operations. This process creates liquidity for trading synths and supports the protocols that rely on Synthetix.
Importantly, staking occurs on Optimism and not on Ethereum’s main chain. After bridging SNX to Optimism, users can stake directly through Synthetix’s website. When a user stakes SNX, they mint sUSD as a “debt.” This sUSD can be burned (destroyed) when a user wants to unstake their SNX. Staking entitles users to collect trading fees (in the form of sUSD) and rewards from the inflation of the SNX token. Of note, there is a 7-day lockup of SNX tokens when staked.
The sUSD held by all SNX stakers represents the full debt pool of the protocol, and it can vary depending on the value of synths (like sBTC and sETH). Users are incentivized to maintain a certain collateralization ratio (C-ratio) to ensure there is enough SNX staked to back the value of the synths minted by the Synthetix protocol.
Token economics and distribution
With the passing of a community proposal in May 2022, the SNX token became subject to a goal of 20% inflation (new tokens created) per year. These new tokens are used to reward stakers for their service to the ecosystem.
The initial token distribution of the SNX token allocated 60% of all tokens to investors and token sales, 20% to the development team and advisors, 12% to the Synthetix Foundation (which later turned into three separate decentralized autonomous organizations), 5% to partners, and 3% to bounties and marketing incentives.
- Synthetix is a protocol used for minting synthetic assets (synths) and providing liquidity to platforms offering crypto derivatives trading.
- Spot synths are crypto tokens that mirror the value of another asset, such as sUSD which tracks the US dollar and sBTC which tracks Bitcoin.
- Perpetual futures (perps) are a crypto-specific financial tools that can be traded on derivatives markets with leverage.
- The liquidity behind both spot synths and perps is provided by staked SNX—the utility token of the Synthetix ecosystem.