In this episode of Empire, Hal Press joins Mike and Jason to discuss his investment thesis. It's no secret that Hal is an ETH super bull, and this episode makes it clear why. He explains ETH's unfair advantage, how L2s will serve as free marketing for Ethereum, the liquidity staking derivative trade, the mechanics behind token rallies, token value accrual and the deflationary outlook! Get ready, this is one of my favorite podcasts yet.
This report is for informational purposes only and is not investment or trading advice. The views and opinions expressed in this report are exclusively those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the positions of North Rock Digital. The Author may or may not be holding the cryptocurrencies. You are fully responsible for any decisions you make; North Rock Digital is not liable for any loss or damage caused by reliance on information provided. For investment advice, please consult a registered investment advisor.
As we approach the Merge, we wanted to provide on how we are thinking about the Ethereum ecosystem and specifically Merge-related investments. This is meant as follow-up to the prior article we wrote on Ethereum, which can be found here. Since I published the original article in January much has transpired, some assumptions have changed and the outlook for the future has been altered. Despite this, the core thesis remains, Ethereum is set to undergo the largest structural shift in the history of crypto. Back in January, the path to the Merge was extremely uncertain. Now, that path has crystalized. The final testnet, Goerli, was recently completed successfully and a Mainnet target date has been set for Sep 15/16. So where do we stand?
1. The Merge — An Update
Regarding the Merge the thesis has not changed, Ethereum is set to undergo a massive structural shift as expenses will effectively be reduced to zero. The shift will give rise to the first large scale structural demand asset in crypto history. As we have stated our core thesis many times, this paper will address what has changed and new topics not discussed in the prior article. First, it is useful to mark to market the core Ethereum model to get a sense for some of the key fundamentals such as supply reduction and the post-Merge staking rate.
The largest shift since last December is that ETH denominated fees have fallen significantly. However, there is an interesting dynamic at play here. Although fees have declined, active users have experienced a steady uptrend since late June.
This may seem inconsistent as more users should lead to higher gas. However, we believe this dynamic is caused by recent efficiency optimizations of various popular Ethereum applications. The best and most significant example is Opensea, which in migrating Seaport (from Wyvern) increased gas efficiency by 35%. This has led to a reduction in gas that doesn’t correlate to a decline in activity. In fact, multiple indicators suggest that despite the low gas readings activity has been increasing recently (more on the specifics here later). This raises an interesting question: what is the optimal fee run rate for Ethereum? Higher fees mean more ETH is burned and post-Merge also correlates to a higher staking rate, but these higher fees also limit adoption. As we saw in ’21, when fees are too high, some users get pushed to other L1 ecosystems. After roll-ups scale appropriately, Ethereum should be able to achieve both high fees and continued adoption. In the current environment though, it is interesting to think about the optimal mix. We believe the optimal point is approximately the point at which fees are high enough to burn all new issuance. This will enable ETH supply to be stable while also keeping fees low enough not to inhibit adoption. Interestingly, of late, fees have found an equilibrium near this point. Lower fees also seem to be having a positive impact on adoption as active users have begun to increase after a long downtrend.
Despite the fact that we seem to be near an optimal fee run rate, the reduced fees do negatively impact various model outputs. This impact is not critical as at current run rate the burn would still be still large enough for ETH to be slightly deflationary post-Merge. Importantly, the current run rate would continue to drive structural demand as the majority of issuance is unlikely to be sold, while fees that are used must be purchased off the open market. The staking rate will increase post-Merge by ~24% from 4.2% to 5.2%. However, this does not properly illustrate the true impact. To fully appreciate the shift, we must evaluate the real yield rather than the nominal yield. While the current nominal yield is ~4.2%, the real yield is close to zero, as 4.4% of new ETH is issued every year. In this context, real yield is currently ~0% but will increase to ~5% post-Merge. This is an enormous shift and will create the highest real yield in crypto by a large margin. The only other comparable yield is BNB with a 1% real yield. ETH’s 5% yield will be a market leading figure. What is the significant of this yield?
Stakers will receive a net ~5% rate, which equates to 100/5= ~20x earnings. This multiple is considerably cheaper than the revenue multiple because the staking participation rate is quite low, meaning stakers receive an outsized share of total rewards. This is one of the key advantages of ETH from an investment standpoint. As there are so many other uses for ETH, throughout the crypto ecosystem, most ETH ends up locked in those applications rather than staked. This in turn allows stakers to receive an outsized real yield.
In terms of the flows, ETH will transition from enduring structural outflows of ~$18mm/day to structural inflows of ~$0.3mm/day. While the demand side of the flow equation has softened, the complete reduction of the supply side remains the most important variable. Our estimate for the ETH denominated supply reduction is actually larger than it was previously. This is due to the fact that the price declines from the highs have not been accompanied by a corresponding hash rate reduction. As a result, miner profitability has decreased dramatically, and they are likely selling close to 100% of mined ETH. For calculation’s sake I have assumed 80% of miner issuance is being sold. In this context, ETH has found an equilibrium in which miners sell ~roughly 10.8k tokens ($18mm USD) per day. Given that fees have been averaging ~$2mm this yields a net outflow of ~$16mm. Post Merge this sell pressure will reduce to zero, and it is projected that there will be a structural inflow of ~$0.3mm/day post-Merge. To conclude, while many of the numbers have shifted meaningfully in the last eight months, the conclusion remains roughly the same, ETH will shift from requiring ~$18mm of new money entering the asset to keep price from declining to requiring ~$0.3mm exiting to keep price from increasing.
To summarize, the staking rate and structural demand are lower than they were 6 months ago. However, this is to be expected in a period of slower activity and if activity continues to rebound these rates will increase. The primary investment case remains the same, there is an enormous opportunity to front-run the largest structural shift in the history of crypto. Another point that I think is often overlooked here is that the Merge is more than a shift in supply and demand. It is also a massive fundamental upgrade for Ethereum as the network becomes much more efficient and secure in many ways. This is part of what differentiates the Merge from prior BTC halvings. It is 3x as large of a supply reduction combined with a massive improvement in fundamentals compared to a decline in fundamentals in the case of BTC halvings (reduced security).
Two additional dynamics are worth discussing.
Before addressing how this relates to ETH it is important to lay some contextual groundwork. Why is it that the SPX (or virtually any US/Global equity index) has been such a profitable and consistent investment vehicle over the long term? Most people think this dynamic has been driven almost entirely by earnings growth and multiple expansion. They would posit that if growth slows or the multiple stops expanding these investments would be unlikely to have positive returns going forward. This is incorrect. The primary and most reliable source of growth for the price of these indices has been the passage of time.
Here is an example to illustrate this somewhat unintuitive point. A lemonade stand, LEMON (LEMON = The Enterprise, $LEMON = LEMON shares), earns $1 each year. There are 10 shares of $LEMON outstanding. LEMON has no cash or debt on its balance sheet. The market currently values $1 of ex-growth equity earnings at a 10x multiple. What is LEMON worth today? What about each share of $LEMON? If we assume that next year LEMON will continue to earn $1 annually while the market applies the same multiple, what will LEMON/$LEMON be worth in a year? Take a minute and come to an answer.
If you answered $10/$1 for the first pair of questions you are correct. If you answered $10/$1 for the second pair, you are not. For part 1, LEMON is worth $10 as the market applies a 10x multiple to its $1 of earnings and assigns 0 value to its balance sheet. For part 2, the market continues to apply a 10x multiple to the $1 of earnings, but importantly, it also assigns $1 to the $1 of cash that now sits on LEMON’s balance sheet. LEMON is now worth $11 and each share is worth $1.10. When companies earn money, the money doesn’t disappear, it flows to the company’s balance sheet and the value of it accrues to the owners of the business (the equity holders). $LEMON has appreciated 10% in a year due to the earnings they have generated, despite 0 growth and 0 multiple expansion. This is the power of earnings yield paired with the passage of time.
Crypto hasn’t benefited from this dynamic at all. In fact, crypto actually suffers from the reverse effect. Since almost all crypto projects’ expenses are greater than their revenues, they must dilute their holders to generate the funds necessary to cover their negative net income. As a result, unless earnings grow, or their multiple expands, the price of each individual token will decline. The most notable exception I can think of is BNB, who is the sole current L1 to generate more revenue than expenses. It is no surprise the chart of BNB/BTC is essentially up only and recently broke an ATH.
ETH will enter this exclusive class the moment it transitions to PoS. Post-merge ETH will generate a real yield of approximately 5%. This yield will be very different from virtually every other (non-BNB) L1 where the staking yield simply comes from inflation that offsets the yield. All else equal ETH holders will earn 5% each year. Time will become a tailwind rather than the headwind it is for 99.9% of other projects. This will also change the psychology of holders and incentivize a stronger long-term buy and hold approach, effectively locking up more illiquid supply. Additionally, the “real yield” thesis and the fact that ETH will be the first large scale real yield crypto asset will be particularly appealing to many institutions and should help accelerate institutional adoption.
“Wall of Worry”
Throughout the last few months investors have been extremely skeptical about technical risks, edge cases and timing risks. The latest edge case that has generated attention is the potential for PoW forks of Ethereum that live on after the Merge. Some PoW maximalists (miners etc.) would prefer to use PoW ETH and think that a forked version of the current ETH is superior to ETC, which already exists as a PoW alterative. We do not believe there is much value in the fork, but our opinion on this matter is not particularly relevant. The important point is that this fork will have no impact on post-Merge PoS ETH. All of the potential risks are either easily managed or not risks in the first place. For example, replay attacks will most probably not be an issue as the PoW chain is unlikely to use the same chain ID. Furthermore, even if they maliciously choose to use the same chain ID, this can be managed by either not interacting with the PoW chain or first sending the assets to a splitter contract. Finally, even if a user does get replay attacked, it will only impact that individual user’s assets and not the overall health of the chain. What the PoW fork does do is provide a dividend to ETH holders, further adding to the value of the Merge. If the fork has any value, ETH holders will be able to send it to an exchange and sell it for additional capital, much of which will then be recycled back into PoS ETH. While we view this as a positive for the Merge related investment case, many are worried about the potential risks and a litany of other edge cases. We have weighed each risk and concluded the upside far outweighs the downside. Nonetheless, these concerns are keeping many long-term believers sidelined. As we approach the Merge many of these issues will be addressed. Eventually, many of these skeptics will be converted, creating fueling continued inflows as we approach the event and culminating with a large set of buyers who will purchase ETH the day the Merge occurs successfully. This should help offset any “sell the news” dynamic.
Just last month, fewer than 1/3 of people thought the Merge would occur before October. Now the date has been confirmed for mid-September and still, the market is only pricing in two-thirds chance of it occurring before October.
Given this backdrop how should we expect prices to move as we approach the Merge? This is the central question. Firstly, we acknowledge the reality that macro will continue to have a large impact on absolute price levels despite the Merge. However, it is still reasonable to think through how Merge related alpha will evolve over the coming weeks. In our opinion, the path gets harder to predict the further out you look but then at some point when you’ve gone far enough it starts to become easier again.
Despite the narrative that has already been building around the Merge, positioning is still quite light within the more discretionary pockets of the market. Perpetual funding has remained negative for most of the rally since June, indicating that there are more shorts than longs in the perp market.
Recently, Bitfinex longs, another notable discretionary pocket of ETH exposure, were reduced back to the lows.
IMO, this light positioning is likely due to many larger participants viewing this move as a “bear market rally” and therefore wanting to put hedges on as we have continued higher.
Historically, there is a large contingent of investors, who lean in the direction of BTC maximalism and will always look to fade the Merge narrative. Their theses primarily revolve around one of two central points. The first is: “the Merge has been 6 months away for 6 years.” The second concern is around technical/execution risk. After evaluating the timing and execution risk, we have become comfortable with both. After the final testnet, Goerli, was successfully Merged earlier this week, the core developers set a target for the Mainnet Merge for September 15/16. All that remains is coordination. While many are concerned about the execution risk, the upgrade has been tested extremely rigorously over many years and been cross checked across many teams. Furthermore, one of the core pillars of Ethereum is resilience. This is the reason there are so many different clients, the redundancy acts as a safety net to protect against singular edge cases or bugs. Multiple, usually well over two, unrelated fluke events occurring simultaneously would be required to affect the protocol. This built-in resilience, the most accomplished developer team in the space, and many years of preparation have given us comfort that a technical issue, though a risk, is unlikely.
Given the cautious positioning and constant desire to “fade” the trade, I expect the next four weeks to follow a similar path as the prior four. There will be periods of pronounced fear as people over analyze extremely unlikely edge cases. However, I expect the price declines around these periods to be shallow as there are many underexposed parties looking to add exposure on any weakness. Furthermore, almost everyone selling ETH over these next few weeks is only selling it tactically and planning to buy it back at some point before, or immediately after the Merge occurs. This dynamic means net outflows are measured. On the flip side, I expect the hype around the Merge to magnify significantly as the date comes into focus and the narrative is picked up by the mainstream media. As I believe the thesis is extremely compelling and digestible by both institutional and retail capital, I expect inflows to accelerate as we approach the Merge creating a higher high, higher low dynamic as we approach the date.
What happens once the Merge actually occurs? Normally, you would think there would be risk of a “sell the news” reaction; many investors concerned about technical risk, plan to buy post-Merge. They believe they will capture the structural effect of the Merge without the technical risks. The post-Merge period will also depend on how much FOMO is generated as we approach the Merge and positioning when we actually get there. We do expect significant buy flows and follow-through directly after the Merge as it is effectively “de-risked.”
We expect a period of range trading as short term traders sell, and this sell flow will be digested by the structural demand and larger slower moving institutional accounts. Price action in this period is less predictable and depends on the macro environment. As I have said previously, macro is incredibly hard to predict, but I will offer a few thoughts, nonetheless.
The crypto macro environment is driven by one core metric: whether adoption is growing, stable or declining. This metric is somewhat impacted by the broader macro environment, but ultimately what matters most is this adoption metric. The reason this metric affects prices is because adoption also drives the long-term flow of funds into or out of the space. Simply put, when users are adopting crypto, they are generally also investing new money into the crypto ecosystem, and this is what drives the macro. When adoption is declining macro is hostile, when it is flat, macro is neutral and when it is growing, macro is accommodating. So how does the macro look today?
For the majority of the last 8–9 months we have been in a declining adoption environment with a net outflow of users departing the ecosystem.
From May ’21 until the end of June daily active users have experienced a declining trend. Over the last ~6 weeks we have seen a nascent recovery as users have steadily been increasing. This is a green shoot and indicates a potential thawing of the macro environment. We had been in a declining adoption phase, and we have now, at least, entered a stable adoption phase and potentially an increasing adoption phase. There are other green shoots that have been sprouting recently as well.
After many weeks of redemptions Tether has started to slowly mint new coins. After a long period of outflows new money has started to enter the space again.
This impact is not unique to the Ethereum ecosystem, AVAX has also recently seen daily active users increase.
NFT users and transactions have been stable recently
And certain web searches have started to positively inflect, while other are more stable.
These are not dramatic increases, nothing like the exponential increases we saw at the start of the ’21 bull market. This is why I label them green shoots. They are still young and fragile. If they are smothered, they will likely wither and die, but if nurtured they could grow into something material. We think the broader macro environment will play a key role in determining whether these green shoots live or die. To us, inflation is by far the most important macroeconomic variable; therefore, we believe that if inflation moderates and allows the fed to pivot and ease monetary policy there is a good chance these green shoots will grow stronger. However, if inflation remains high and the fed is forced to continue tightening policy they will likely be smothered and die. Predicting the course of inflation is not our primary domain, however due to its significance in markets today we studied it closely. After review, we feel moderating inflation is the most likely outcome, which should give these green shoots a chance to blossom.
Another advantage, in favor of a more sustained bottom is the fact that an enormous amount of vesting from project launches in the last 24 months has now been absorbed. Furthermore, as most of the projects are down 70–95%, the USD notional size of all future vesting is also vastly reduced. Together, these two dynamics help meaningfully reduce the overall daily supply the space must absorb.
Lastly, the final variable that we think will impact this equation is none other than the Merge. Investors underestimate the impact the Merge will have on the macro environment of the entire space. There is some uncertainty about how much the supply reduction caused by prior BTC halvings has fueled the ensuing price action rather than coincidentally aligning with the natural cycles of human emotion and monetary policy. We sympathize with these uncertainties and think there has been an element of luck in the timing. However, we think the supply reductions also had an impact and the truth likely lies somewhere in the middle. Another common criticism is that supply changes don’t drive price and all that matters are demand changes. We are not in accord with this thinking. A supply reduction is not different than a demand addition. Let’s say miners sell 10k ETH/day, and instead of getting rid of this sell pressure we simply add 10k ETH/day of buy pressure. This would have the exact same impact as eliminating the miners’ sell pressure but would be a demand change rather than a supply change. It is obvious these two options would have the same impact and it therefore makes no sense to us why one would matter more than another.
If we then believe that BTC halvings have impacted macro, then it stands to reason that the Merge should do the same. While ETH dominance is significantly lower than BTC dominance at the time of the last halving, the impact from the Merge is nearly as large as the prior BTC halving as a % of total crypto market cap and significantly larger on an absolute basis.
Post-Merge crypto will be relieved of ~$16mm of daily supply. This is not an insignificant amount. To recognize this, it is useful to consider the cumulative impact. We think a TWAP of 70k ETH per week for would have a market impact. That is effectively the impact the Merge will have except it doesn’t stop after a year; it continues into perpetuity. This has the potential to positively influence the entire space as the positive flow impact trickles into other parts of the market. This should provide an added macro tailwind to help nurture the green shoots we referenced earlier and increases their odds of survival. To conclude, if macro moderates at all, there is a real chance that what began as a bounce off of a capitulation bottom morphs into a more sustainable and organic recovery and the Merge should help aid this process.
In the long-term, the future become easier to predict, as structural flows are most important over this time horizon and easier to forecast. This is where the Merge’s impact is most pronounced. As long as Ethereum’s network adoption continues, which we deem likely, structural demand will remain and further inflows will also exist. This should result in sustainable and consistent appreciation, especially compared to other tokens, over many years (hopefully decades) to come. We expect Ethereum to surpass Bitcoin as the largest cryptocurrency within the next few years as we believe flows are the most important variable in crypto. Ethereum will forever have a flow tailwind post-Merge. Bitcoin will forever have a flow headwind. To get a sense for how things may look, the BNB/BTC chart is a good place to start.
BNB/BTC has steadily increased and made multiple new ATH’s during this bear market despite little narrative momentum. We believe, this is primarily due to the fact that BNB is the only L1 with structural demand. Post-Merge Ethereum will have greater structural demand than BNB both on an absolute and market cap weighted basis.
2. Trade ideas
Before evaluating the ETH/BTC trade it is necessary to provide some more general context on the PoW vs PoS debate. Much of the following is paraphrased from the appendix of the first article but it is worth reiterating. We believe PoS is a fundamentally more secure system for a variety of reasons. Firstly, each unit of security costs less with PoS. To understand why PoS provides more efficient security than PoW we first need to explore how these consensus mechanisms generate security in the first place. A consensus mechanism is as secure as the cost to 51% attack it. The efficiency of the system can then be measured by the cost (issuance) required to generate a unit amount of security. In other words, how many dollars the network has to pay out to receive $1 of protection from a 51% attack. For PoW, the cost of a 51% attack is primarily the hardware required to obtain 51% of the hashrate. The relevant metric is how much money miners require to invest $1 in mining hardware. The math tends to work out close to 1 to 1 meaning miners require 100% annual rate of return on their investment or in other words $1 of annual issuance for each $1 they spend on hardware and utilities. In this context, the network needs to issue roughly $1 of supply each year to generate $1 of security.
In the case of PoS, stakers are not required to purchase hardware, so the question becomes what return do stakers demand to lock up their stake in the PoS consensus mechanism. In general, stakers require a significantly lower rate of return than the 100% miners typically demand. The primary reason for this is that there is no incremental cost outlay and their assets do not depreciate (mining hardware typically depreciates close to 0 after a few years). The required rate should generally fall in the 3–10% range. As we calculated earlier, the current estimated post-Merge staking rate of 5% falls right in the middle of this range. This means that to gain $1 of security a PoS needs to issue $0.03-$0.10 of issuance. This is 10x-33x more efficient than PoW (20x more in the case of Ethereum’s PoS). To conclude, this means that a PoS network can issue ~1/20th the issuance of a PoW network and be just as secure. In the case of ETH, they will actually issue about 1/10th the issuance and the network will be twice as secure as it was during PoW.
This efficiency is not the only advantage. Both consensus mechanisms share a common issue, which is that the security of the chain is correlated to the price of the token. This has the potential to create a self-reinforcing negative feedback loop whereby the reduction in token price causes a reduction in security, which therefore causes a decrease in confidence and drives a further decrease in token price and then repeats. PoS has natural defense against this dynamic, PoW doesn’t. The attack vector for PoS is much more secure than PoW. To attack a PoS system you must control a majority of the stake. To do this you must purchase at least as many tokens as are staked from the market. However, not all tokens are available for sale. In fact, much of the supply is never traded and is effectively illiquid. Furthermore, and most importantly, with each token acquired the next token becomes harder and more expensive to acquire. In the case of Ethereum, only ~1/3 of tokens is liquid (moved in the last 90 days). This means that once a steady state staking participation rate of closer to 30% has been reached it will be extremely difficult no matter the amount of money possessed, to attack the network. An attacker would need to purchase the entire liquid supply, which is impractical and nearly impossible. Another important feature of this defense mechanism is that it is relatively unaffected by price. Because the limiting factor to attack is liquid supply rather than money it does not get much easier to attack the network with lower prices. If there is not enough liquid supply (measured as a % of total tokens) to purchase, it doesn’t matter how cheap each token becomes because the limiting factor is not price. This price insensitive defense mechanism is incredibly important to deter the potential negative feedback loop that declining price could otherwise create.
In the case of PoW, in addition to being 20x less efficient, there is no such defense mechanism. Each hardware unit may be marginally harder to acquire than the next, but there is no direct relationship and if there is a correlation that does exist it is weak at best. Importantly, it also becomes significantly easier to attack at lower prices as the number of hardware units required decreases linearly with price and the supply of hardware units does not change. It is not reflexive in the manner the PoS liquid supply defense is.
Other advantages of PoS such as better energy efficiency and better healing mechanisms, are articulated clearly elsewhere, therefore we will not focus on them in this piece.
Another misconception about PoS is that it drives centralization by rewarding large stakers more than small stakers. We believe this to be incorrect. While, large stakers receive more staking rewards than smaller stakers, this does not drive centralization. Centralization is the process by which large stake holders increase their percentage of the stake over time. This is not what occurs in the PoS system. As large stakers have a larger stake to begin with the larger rewards do not increase their percentage of the pool. For example, if 10 ETH is staked between two counterparties. Counterparty X has 9 ETH and counterparty Z has 1 ETH. X controls 90% of the stake. A year later X will have received 0.45 ETH and Z will have received .05 ETH. X has received 9 times the amount of rewards as Z. However, X still controls 90% of the stake and Z still controls 10%. The proportions have not been altered and therefore no centralization has occurred.
These inherent differences impact the debate around ETH/BTC. Most consider ETH a totally different asset to BTC as they do not think it is designed to be a decentralized SoV (replace gold), while BTC is. We believe in many important ways Ethereum is better suited to be a long-term SoV than Bitcoin. Before we compare the two, it is first necessary to evaluate Bitcoin’s current security model and how it may evolve over time.
As discussed earlier, a system’s security is derived from the cost to 51% attack it. As a PoW network this cost is determined by the amount of money it would take to purchase enough hardware rigs and other equipment/electricity necessary to control 51% of the hash power. This is roughly equivalent to the cost necessary to recreate the current mining hash rate that exists on the network. In an efficient market (mostly an accurate assumption over medium/long term) the total hash rate is a product of the value of the issuance that miners receive. Bitcoin is as secure as the value of its issuance. As discussed earlier, this security is both inefficient and importantly lacks the reflexive defense of a PoS system.
What happens when Bitcoin halves its issuance every four years? The system fundamentally becomes 50% less secure assuming all other variables are held constant. Historically, this has not been a large problem as the value of the issuance (and therefore the security) is a function of two variables. The number of tokens issued and the value of each token. As the price of the tokens has more than doubled around every halving cycle, this has more than compensated for the issuance reduction on an absolute basis. The absolute security of the network has increased through each cycle despite the number of tokens being issued halving. However, this is not a sustainable dynamic long term for multiple reasons. Firstly, it is not realistic to expect the value of each token to continue to more than double with each cycle. Exponential price increase is mathematically impossible to sustain over long periods of time. To illustrate this point, if BTC price doubled every halving cycle it would exceed global M2 after ~7 more halving cycles. Eventually, BTC price will stop increasing at this rate; when it does, each halving cycle will drastically cut into its security. If the BTC price declines around each halving cycle the security reduction will be even more significant and could trigger the negative feedback loop referred to earlier. This security system is fundamentally unsustainable so long as prices are capped, which they are. The only way to counter this issue is to generate meaningful fee revenue. This fee revenue could then replace some of the issuance and continue providing an incentive for miners and therefore provide security even after issuance is reduced. The issue for Bitcoin is that fee revenue has been negligible, and also declining, over a long period of time.
In our opinion, the only practical way to generate security over the long term is through significant fee revenue. Therefore, to function as sustainable SoV a system must generate fees. The alternative is tail emissions, which guarantees inflation compromising the SoV utility.
Long-term security represents the most important property of an SoV. For example, gold has captured the majority of the SoV market for so long as nearly all market participants are confident that it will remain legitimate long into the future. For a crypto asset to become an adopted and successful SoV, it too must convince the market that it is extremely secure, and that its legitimacy is guaranteed. This can only be possible if the protocol’s security budget is sustainable for the long term, inherently favoring a PoS system that has a large and durable fee pool. We believe the most likely candidate for this system is ETH. It is one of only two L1’s with a significant fee pool. The other, BNB, is extremely centralized.
Credible neutrality is the second critically important characteristic of a successful SoV. Gold has no allegiance or reliance on anything. This independency creates its success as an SoV. For another asset to be widely adopted as an SoV it must also be credibly neutral. For a cryptocurrency, credible neutrality is accomplished through decentralization. Today, the most decentralized cryptocurrency is undoubtedly Bitcoin. This is primarily because Bitcoin has very little development effort, and the protocol is mainly ossified, but nonetheless the fact remains that it is by far the most decentralized protocol today. If you tried to kill Bitcoin today, it would be extremely hard. If you tried to kill ETH today, it would still be extremely hard, but likely easier than BTC.
However, we believe it is more important to look at the end state than the current state so long as there is a realistic path to achieve this end-state. Ethereum has a clear roadmap ahead of it. We believe that while we are currently only in the middle of this roadmap, eventually (I’d estimate ~8–12 years) this roadmap will be complete, and the significance of the core developer team will fade. At this point ETH will have a compelling case that it is more decentralized than BTC in addition to possessing far superior long-term security.
Contrary to popular belief, PoS naturally promotes decentralization more than PoW. Larger PoW miners receive a clear benefit from economies of scale, which drives centralization. Scale is less relevant for PoS, as the cost of setting up a node is vastly lower than a PoW rig. Furthermore, there is no real benefit in having access to large-scale electricity providers, as the electricity required for PoS is 99%+ lower. Economies of scale are very important for PoW, but not for PoS.
400,000 unique ETH validators exist today and the top 5 holders only control 2.33% of the stake (excluding smart contract deposits). This level of decentralization and diversity separates ETH from all other PoS L1’s. Furthermore, this compares to BTC favorably as the top 5 mining pools today control 70% of the hashrate. While some critics will point out that liquid staking providers control an overwhelming portion of Ethereum’s stake, we believe these concerns are overblown. Additionally, we expect these concerns to be addressed by the liquid staking protocols and expect more checks to be put in place to further protect against these concerns.
In summary, PoS is a fundamentally better consensus mechanism for a crypto SoV. This is the reason the Merge will represent a major milestone on Ethereum’s roadmap, marking a critical juncture in its journey to become the most appealing cryptographic SoV.
The fundamental reasons discussed above are the reason we favor the ETH/BTC trade long-term and specifically around the Merge. However, flows, and specifically structural flows, are most important in determining price. It is the structural shift in flows that the Merge triggers that makes this trade so appealing and why the Merge is such a large catalyst for it. Historically, the structural flow for both BTC and ETH have been quite similar.
Although ETH has had a smaller market cap its issuance has been ~3x larger on a market cap weighted basis. This larger issuance has made it extremely difficult for ETH to ever surpass Bitcoin in market cap as it would require ETH to absorb 3x the daily USD denominated supply. An interesting exercise is to think about the chart above and what the inputs are, as clearly there has been a strong relationship (stronger than normal correlation would imply). The charted values are a product of tokens issued and token price. What happens if you reduce the tokens issued variable but want to retain the relationship? You must increase token price. So what should we expect to happen when we reduce the token issued variable for Ethereum by 90%? This is not to say that price should 10x to offset this reduction as the impacts are not necessarily linear, but the relationships are worth considering.
To conclude, post-Merge the passage of time will forever be a flow tailwind for Ethereum while for Bitcoin it will always be a headwind. Ultimately, this straightforward reality is what we believe will be the primary driver of the eventual flippening.
As Ethereum is such a large ecosystem many other areas will be tangentially affected by the Merge. As an investor it is often interesting (and profitable) to consider the second and third order effects of certain catalysts to search for opportunities that may be inefficiently priced in the market. Regarding the Merge, there are many options such as L2’s, DeFi and Liquid Staking Derivative (LSD) protocols. After a comprehensive review of the different alternatives, we have concluded that the liquid staking protocols are set to be the largest fundamental beneficiaries of the Merge (even more so than ETH).
The thesis is simple. The LSD protocols’ revenues are directly impacted by the price of ETH plus multiple other Merge related tailwinds that compound each other. Additionally, their largest expense, the cost of subsidizing the liquidity pool between their staking derivate token and native ETH, declines, effectively to zero, shortly after the Merge. At a high level, I expect a 4–7x Merge driven increase in ETH protocol revenue (assuming only modest a ETH price increase) and a 60–80% reduction in their largest expense. This is a uniquely powerful fundamental impact.
We must examine the revenue and expense model of these protocols to fully comprehend this thesis. Using Lido as an example, as it is the largest of the LSD protocols, let’s examine the model. While we have chosen Lido as an example these principles also apply to the other players as they are generally quite similar. Lido generates revenue as a percentage of the staking rewards that accrue to their liquid staking derivatives, stETH. Lido receives 5% of all staking rewards generated. If a user deposits 10 ETH for 10 stETH and generates an additional 0.4 stETH over the course of a year. The user keeps 90% of 0.4, the validator keeps 5% and Lido keeps the other 5%. As can be seen, Lido’s revenue is purely a function of the staking rewards generated on its LSD.
These staking rewards are a function of four sperate variables; total ETH staked, ETH staking rate, LSD market share and ETH price. Importantly, the staking rewards are the product of all four variables. If multiple variables are impacted their effect on the output compounds. In other words, if you double one and triple the other the impact on the staking rewards is 600%. All the variables, except market share, are directly impacted by the Merge. Total ETH staked will likely increase dramatically from the current 12% to closer to ~30%, a 150% increase. As discussed earlier, the staking rate is likely to increase from 4% to ~5%, a 25% increase. There is no reason to think the Merge will significantly impact LSD market share so we can assume this is held constant and has no impact. Lastly, for the sake of this exercise let’s assume a 50% increase in the price of ETH. The aggregate effect of these different variables is 250%*118%*150%= 444% or a ~4.4x increase in revenue.
Expenses also meaningfully drop. The largest expense of these LSD protocols is incentivizing the liquidity pools between their LSD and native ETH. Given there are no withdrawals yet, it is extremely important to create deep liquidity to manage large flows between the LSD and native ETH. However, once withdrawals are enabled these incentives will no longer be required. As there will then be an arbitrage if the two ever differ materially, natural market forces will keep them relatively pegged as arbitrageurs buy the LSD on any dips. This will allow the LSD protocols to drastically reduce their issuance (expenses), which will also materially reduce the sell pressure on the tokens.
LDO is trading at ~144x revenue on a pre-Merge number but this declines to ~31x when you look at it on a post-Merge number. While not overly cheap by traditional measures this is attractive for a high growth strategic asset in the crypto space where valuations are typically elevated. Importantly this is real revenue that will accrue to the protocol.
A common concern among LDO critics is that this revenue does not get returned to holders. They often compare the protocol to Uniswap for this reason. While it is true the revenue is not passed through to token holders at current, we do not think this is a legitimate concern nor do we think the Uniswap comparison is correct. Firstly, just because token holders do not receive cash flow today does not mean they will not in the future. We believe there will be a time when these returns are enabled. We also know that multiple large stakeholders agree on this issue. Furthermore, we do not think Lido should return cash today and would actually be very concerned with management’s competence if they did. This is an extremely early-stage business (~1.5 years old) that is still in its infancy growth phase. They require regular cash raises and are burning cash on a run rate basis today (this will change post-Merge). It would not be sensible to raise money from investors to cover burn and then distribute protocol revenue to token holders, in turn increasing the burn. This would be akin to a startup paying out investor distributions with early revenue despite not generating enough revenue to cover expenses. This would never happen in the traditional capital markets because it is not rational.
The Uniswap comparison is particularly misguided because there is a key difference between the two protocols. The concern with Lido is that they do not return the revenue they generate. The concern with Uniswap is that they do not generate any revenue. Uniswap’s “revenue,” as it is often referred, is simply the fees that LP’s using the protocol generate. These fees are paid to the users not the protocol. With Uni it is not an issue of cash return, it is an issue of cash generation, currently they don’t generate any. The concern with Uni is not that they don’t want to turn on cash return it’s that they don’t want to increase fees (which would be required to generate revenue) because they are worried about losing market share. Lido is in a much better position as they have dominant market share despite charging enough fees to actually generate real revenue. Importantly, this revenue does accrue to the DAO. We believe this cash is better spent internally at this stage of the business and believe it is likely that when that balance shifts, cash return policy will also shift.
Many crypto participants are also concerned about Lido’s dominant market share. They have 90% share of the LSD market and stETH makes up ~31% of total staked ETH. While we think the concerns around centralization are overstated, we still believe Lido should remain below 33% share of staked ETH to eliminate any doubt about Ethereum’s credible neutrality. As far as the investment case for the protocol we do not think a 33% market share cap is concerning. In our opinion, there are many other growth vectors Lido can pursue other than market share, and the investment is already quite compelling with current share.
To conclude, Lido is a key piece of infrastructure in the Ethereum ecosystem that has established product market fit and dominant market share in what will remain an incredibly fast-growing portion of the market. In our opinion, the frequently cited concerns around the protocol are either misplaced or misrepresented. Furthermore, it is reasonably priced considering its past and expected future growth prospects and therefore represents one of the most investable assets in the space.
While Lido is the market leader and largest player there are two other LSD protocols, Rockepool and Stakewise, that also merit consideration. There are many unique aspects of each LSD and intricate detail that could be expanded upon. However, for the sake of digestibility we will focus primarily on the high-level differences and expand upon the finer points in future discussions.
Both RPL and SWISE should benefit from any share that Lido cedes due to the centralization concerns. While we think any Lido share losses will be modest, even modest losses for Lido would equate to outsized gains for the smaller players. For example, if LDO loses 4% market share, RPL gains 2.5% of that and SWISE gains 1.5%. LDO will lose ~12% of their market share but RPL will gain ~50% and SWISE ~125%.
The 2nd largest player in the market, Rocketpool (RPL), has a unique staking mechanism, which also creates unique tokenomics. To stake through RPL, validators must pair RPL with native ETH and are required to maintain a minimum ratio between the two. This dynamic creates predictable and guaranteed demand for RPL as the ETH staking participation rises and more validators adopt the solution. Another benefit of RPL is the practice of validators pooling with other users, allowing the required ETH to set up a staking node to be reduced from the normal 32 ETH to only 16 ETH. This reduced minimum allows for smaller operators to set up nodes and further incentivizes decentralization. This makes RPL a perfect complementary player to LDO, which should act as a tailwind for RPL’s market share as they will be a primary beneficiary of Lido’s effective market share cap.
Lastly, Stakewise is another interesting alternative to LDO. Their model is very similar to LDO’s, but they are focused increasingly on institutional adoption, which should position them well for a post-Merge marketplace. They also benefit from a highly driven and professional team that has continued to execute well. Notably, they have discussed plans to eventually implement token-holder friendly tokenomics that would see token holders directly receive excess protocol revenue. Additionally, SWISE has been gaining notable traction with larger accounts looking to diversify their staking products (proposal alone, which was recently approved by Nexus Mutual will increase their TVL by 20–25%). As they are the smallest player with the highest valuation, they are likely the highest risk/reward investment in the category.
To conclude its hard to differentiate between value within the group. LDO is the cheapest and most secure, but with least market share upside. SWISE is the most expensive, but with the most market share upside and RPL is in between with the added benefit of unique tokenomics and a decentralizing staking mechanism. Relative valuations are rational which suggests to us the market is efficiently pricing the different opportunities. We have elected to own all three. We believe the LSD tokens are the highest EV Merge related investments. They will likely outperform ETH, but investors should expect higher volatility and lower liquidity.
From retail to institutional players, Ethereum's Merge has caught the eyes of prospective investors across the board in recent months.
Citigroup, for example, said ether – the native crypto of Ethereum's network – will become both deflationary and a yield-bearing asset after its upgrade, according to a recent research report.
Crypto markets looked poised to recover after a rocky first half of the year on the upgrade's hype last month, as ethereum jumped more than 40% in a week, according to Messari. The token, however, has since tumbled on harsh macro conditions and inflation concerns, leaving investors tentatively risk-off on speculative assets.
Read the article on BusinessInsider.com
This piece explains why I think Ethereum is a generational investment headed into 2022. My explanation begins with some important context about how I think about “cryptocurrencies”. In 2008, when Satoshi published the Bitcoin whitepaper, the blockchain ecosystem was born. At the time, the term “cryptocurrency” was apt. Bitcoin was the first cryptocurrency and it was launched on the breakthrough innovation of distributed trust, built on a blockchain, to create the first ever crypto(graphic) currency. This was the blockchain’s first use case. Bitcoin’s primary utility was (and still is) to be the currency of the Bitcoin blockchain network. Since 2008 the broader cryptocurrency ecosystem has evolved significantly. Today, the term “cryptocurrency” no longer fully captures what blockchain tokens represent. While tokens are still used as native currencies, many also exhibit a second function as equity stakes in their native blockchain projects. This new use case was enabled by the advent of Proof-of-Stake (PoS), which re-allocated block rewards to stakers rather than miners, thereby directly monetizing the value of the network in the hands of its owners. A token holder in a PoS blockchain can stake their tokens and claim their proportional share of fees generated on the network. These fees constitute the revenue generated on the network. A staker receiving their direct share in the value generated by the utility of the network is equivalent to the holder of a traditional equity instrument receiving dividend payments. Cryptocurrencies can be thought of and analyzed in similar ways to traditional equites. The massive inflection about to take place in post-Merge ETH represents an investment opportunity of extraordinary significance.
Some crypto investors believe that using traditional equity frameworks for valuing crypto projects is misguided and does not address dynamics unique to the crypto space. Historically, this has been true as tokens have tended to trade more around narratives and less around fundamental values. However, if you look closely there are already inklings of traditional fundamentals impacting price (why is BNB the third largest crypto asset despite a terrible narrative? Fundamentals). Additionally, in my opinion, valuing crypto tokens purely on speculative value is unreliable for the long term and I would expect the industry to increasingly reflect fundamental value as it matures. At the end of the day price is purely a reflection of supply and demand. When aggregate values are still relatively low (Yes, $1.6T is still relatively low compared to other asset classes) speculative demand can support prices. Longer term, I believe crypto projects will need to become profitable and have a mechanism of returning that profit to holders if they are to support value as that $1.6T number grows, which I suspect is likely.
While I place a lot of weight on potential profitability of crypto projects, cryptocurrencies also have an important second value proposition that traditional equities do not. As mentioned earlier, these tokens are still used as the native currencies of their respective blockchain ecosystems. This currency use case has evolved significantly from the early Bitcoin days. Initially, cryptocurrencies were only used to make payments from one party to another. In recent years blockchain ecosystems have meaningfully evolved such that today these tokens are used for a much broader swath of activities more closely resembling a full-fledged economy rather than a simple peer to peer payment system. In this context, we have two primary forms of value for blockchain tokens.
1. Present Value of Future Cash Flows
a. As a token holder you have the right to stake your tokens and receive your share of future revenues generated by the network.
2. Monetary Premium Derived from the Native Currency Use Case
a. Tokens are required to participate in the blockchain economy creating demand for tokens as users purchase them to engage in the blockchain economy. This is similar to the value of fiat currencies.
The combination of these two features provides a framework to consider valuation. There is an important detail that often gets overlooked regarding proposition 1 above — the present value of future cash flows. As a holder, you are entitled your share of future revenues generated by the network, but your share is not static. Blockchain projects also have expenses, and these expenses do not look like the cash expenses from traditional equities. While projects do have some cash expenses, the majority of their expenses are paid as issuance akin to stock-based compensation (SBC). While issuance does not reduce your dividend payments immediately, it reduces the share of future dividends you receive. This therefore reduces the present value of future cash flows, which then flows through to a decline in the value proposition.
It is important to understand not only the yield of a token, but also where that yield comes from and its sustainability over the long term. It is not viable for a token to inflate supply exponentially over the long term as math dictates this would cause price to asymptotically approach zero, assuming market capitalization is capped at some limit (global M2 if nothing else). L1 blockchains must reach a point where fee revenue at least covers the cost of security (issuance to validators) in order to be sustainable over the long term. Importantly, this is also what is best for the users especially when they are the owners of the chain.
It is useful to view an exaggerated edge case to illustrate this. Assume a chain scales to a point of offering millions of TPS for a fraction of a penny, but also assume this same chain is required to issue 100% of supply annually to compensate validators. This chain would offer unrivaled performance, but the tokens outstanding would grow exponentially, and the value of each individual token would approach 0 no matter how many users it attracted. This dynamic would have a very negative effect on the development and security of the chain and the chain would likely fail. So long as a blockchain’s fee revenue does not cover their cost of validation, they will always trend toward this unfortunate terminal state and will not be sustainable over the long term. One of the main reasons for this is that the costs of validation are determined as a proportion of market cap rather than a fixed fiat-denominate expense. This makes it impossible for chains to grow out of this expense unless they generate a source of revenue that also scales comparably with market cap to offset this validator cost.
2. Part II — The Fundamentals
In Part II, I will explain my conclusion that Ethereum is positioned to capture significant value from both of the core value capture methods discussed above. In Part III, I will engage in a more tactical discussion about why I am particularly bullish on the price of ETH into the upcoming transition to PoS planned for 2022. Generally, I think my tactical view is more developed and insightful than my fundamental view and likely contains more “alpha”. Therefore, if you are not particularly interested in fundamentals or my view on them you can skip directly to Part III.
2021 has been dominated by debate around the competition between Ethereum and Alternate Layer 1 blockchains (Alt L1’s). Many people point to Ethereum’s stagnant growth vs. Alt L1’s such as Avalanche and Solana as a proof point that Ethereum is failing and losing its place as the dominant L1. There is an assumption in the L1 space that L1’s should strive to reduce fees to their lowest possible level and that high fees are “extractive”. This assumption leads to a prevailing view that when blockchains charge users fees, this is not an act of “making” money but rather “taking” money.
I find this view somewhat odd and anti-capitalist. When HBO charges high membership fees for providing the highest quality TV shows no one accuses them of being “extractive”, because the user understands those fees are required to provide the quality of the product they receive. The same is true for Apple when the company charges a premium for the best smartphones. People do not attack them for “taking” users money, instead they laud them for providing extraordinary products. The same can be said about Ethereum and the block space they provide. The high cost is a direct result of the quality of the block space. In the case of block space, quality is measured by security and decentralization. Ethereum provides the most secure and most decentralized block space and as a direct result charges the highest fees as the blockchain trilemma dictates these two qualities necessarily come at the expense of scalability. Of course, Ethereum should try to reduce fees, and they are trying, but to suggest they are “taking” users money because they are choosing to prioritize decentralization and security first, ignores the fundamentals of the blockchain space.
Additionally, I think it is important to look deeper into the type of user and transaction different chains are attracting. Not all transactions are created equal and not all users are created equal. Building on the earlier Apple analogy, Apple holds only ~14% of the smartphone market share but yet Apple makes up over 75% of the combined smartphone market capitalization. Yes, some of this is due to their superior ability to monetize services, but the point still stands, typically the premium portion of a market makes up a disproportionate amount of the value of that market.
I believe the same will be true of block space. As long as Ethereum continues to offer the highest quality block space it will likely capture the majority of high value transactions. If a user is trying to execute a relatively low priority transaction, they may go to a different chain, but if they really value the security and decentralization of a transaction, they will likely stay on Ethereum. While offering transactions at 1/10,000th of the cost is good for attracting new users it also means you need 10,000x as many transactions to capture the same amount of value. To be clear I do believe in Ethereum’s scaling roadmap and the vision to become a “chain of chains.” In this potential future, there will likely only be two types of transactions on Ethereum L1; whale transactions and roll up transactions. Both of these are likely to fall into the premium transaction bucket and represent significant value per transaction. This will also allow Ethereum to scale, offer significantly lower fees to users, attract additional users and retain leading decentralization and security. However, that is not my primary point. I think long term, Ethereum’s decision to prioritize the quality of its block space vs. the quantity of it, will not only prove to be the best decision for the crypto ecosystem, but also for the value capture properties of ETH the asset.
The above largely focuses on how things will evolve in the future, but how do they look today? At present Ethereum generates ~$40m/day of fee revenue, which equates to a ~$12B/year run rate. This is over 20x the second L1, BSC, and many multiples of all other Alt L1’s.
At a fundamental level, if you account for the fact that most of Ethereum is not staked and likely will remain that way and normalize for post PoS issuance, Ethereum is trading at ~10x projected annualized earnings from the perspective of a staker. The numbers behind this are quite interesting and be found in the table below. In short, assuming a 30% staking participation rate (large increase from today’s 9%) a staker makes ~9% from staking and another 1.3% as the entire network is projected to be net 1.3% deflationary. Stakers will receive a net 10% of total earnings power, which equates to 100/10= ~10x earnings. This calculation is much less favorable for other L1’s that do not generate fees, because while you receive a staking yield your stake also gets diluted at nearly that same rate, so you have almost zero net income (extremely high PE multiple).
~10x PE is unfathomably cheap for an asset growing as quickly as Ethereum (total revenue up ~1500% y/y) especially when you consider it likely has the largest TAM of any asset in the world.
In addition, I believe Ethereum also possesses the most significant monetary premium value. This is not only represented by the massive TVL lead it has on every other chain, but also the fact that by far the most vibrant economy of NFT’s and other digital assets lives on Ethereum. More detail is required to provide a thorough analysis of these fundamentals, but the main point I am trying to make is that from a fundamental perspective Ethereum is head and shoulders above all other L1’s when it comes to value capture. If people are interested in more detailed thoughts on this, I can follow up with some more in-depth thoughts.
With all of this said I believe that fundamentals actually do not directly influence asset prices — assets are priced as a function of supply and demand. Fundamentals often influence supply and demand over the medium to long term, but even over these extended periods their impact on asset prices is only indirect and depends on the ability to alter supply and demand. However, in the case of ETH, fundamentals are linked with supply and demand much more directly than for other financial assets. ETH’s expenses are paid in issuance, which directly flow into structural sell pressure. ETH’s revenue is derived from fees, which directly flow into structural buy pressure. In light of this, I will explain why I think Ethereum’s fundamentals are likely to dramatically improve over the next 6 months and how this will be reflected in supply and demand. Furthermore, there are multiple non-fundamental factors that will likely have an equally large impact on supply and demand for ETH. Many people have written about the impact the Merge is likely to have on ETH prices, but I believe there are a few dynamics that have not yet been discussed and will try to shed light on those. I will also try to provide a comprehensive overview of why I think ETH represents a generational risk adjusted investment opportunity over the next 6 months.
3. Part III — The Trade
Before we dive into the details of the Ethereum thesis I will first provide some context around how I view the supply demand dynamics for the entire crypto complex. In my view, over a short period of time prices are driven by discretionary supply and demand, but over the medium to long term they are driven by structural supply and demand. While structural forces often only make up a small portion of daily volume, the fact that they are structural and repeat for long periods of time makes their impact extremely strong over the long term. As a general rule I view any structural force that makes up at least 1% of direction volume as very significant.
The interplay between discretionary and structural supply and demand explains why so many new project launches show strong price appreciation at inception. Generally, they launch with the majority of supply locked up and therefore discretionary demand is enough to drive steep price increases. However, over the longer term as supply unlocks this produces a structural seller, which, unless projects are able to create structural demand, tends to cause initial price appreciation to fade dramatically over time.
There is an even more interesting structural supply dynamic when it comes to PoW blockchain projects. This impact is important to understand as it tends to drive the entire crypto market as ETH and BTC are PoW chains and make up over 60% of total crypto market cap. With PoW chains all new issuance goes to miners. These mining organizations are generally run as professional enterprises and are not just mining to accumulate more cryptocurrency. Additionally, they have significant real-world expenses such as utilities (mainly electricity), rent and hardware. As a result, typically, they structurally sell a portion of the mining rewards they receive to cover expenses and turn a profit. The proportion that they sell varies from miner to miner. Some sell all, some sell none and everything in between. After speaking to a few of these organizations, I estimate on average they sell between 80–90% of total issuance they receive. This creates a daily seller in the market that is indiscriminately selling newly minted tokens every single day. However, this structural seller is unique in that the notional amount they sell is denominated in tokens and not in fiat. This is an extremely important distinction. It means that notional sell pressure as denominated in fiat scales linearly with the price of the asset.
As this is a key point its worth examining the mechanics in detail. Using ETH as an example, miners receive ~15k tokens/day. This can be thought of as dilutive issuance of SBC. If we assume miners sell 85% of these tokens that is ~13k tokens that are structurally sold each day. When Ethereum was trading at $100/token, not long ago, this equated to $1.3mm/day and it is not difficult to offset this amount of structural selling. However, at $3,000/token, miner selling then equates to ~$40mm/day. This may not sound like a huge amount but think about what it means when you extrapolate. It equates to ~$1.2B/month and ~$14B/year. That is vast quantity of supply that needs to be absorbed each year, just to maintain current prices, and even more is required to generate price increases. The numbers are also very similar with Bitcoin. Using similar assumptions, Bitcoin has ~$25mm of daily sell pressure, which equates to ~$800mm/month and ~$10B/year. Leaving aside all other structural supply and all discretionary supply, this means that crypto as an asset class must attract over ~$22B/year to maintain current prices.
This, however, only looks at the supply side of the equation. The demand side is equally important. For both assets there is a portion of holders that simply buy every finite time period (day / week / month / paycheck etc.) that produces structural demand to offset some of the structural supply. This structural demand is fiat-denominated. These buyers are generally not paid in ETH tokens, but rather in fiat currency. As a result, if the price of crypto assets goes up, they do not get a bigger paycheck every month to buy more crypto with.
Importantly, in the case of ETH and other fee generating chains there is also a second source of structural demand. Since EIP-1559, which took place in August ’21, ~70% of fees are burned. A good analogy for this is if Apple charged for iPhones in Apple shares instead of fiat currency. After receiving your Apple shares for an iPhone, Apple would then retire 70% of the shares and redistribute the remaining 30% back to existing shareholders as a stock dividend. The Ethereum “burn” is often thought of as direct buy pressure, but in fact it is actually not direct buy pressure. Rather it is indirect buy pressure. When fees are burned, they are not bought back from the open market, instead they are retired from the existing float. However, if you are a user who has just spent some ETH using the Ethereum network you likely fall into one of two buckets. You are likely either:
1. An Investor in ETH who has allocated a portion of your investment portfolio to ETH and also happen to be using the network
2. A more utility focused user of Ethereum using the network for NFT’s, DeFi, Gaming etc, do not hold Ethereum as an investment, but only to pay for the fees associated with your usage
In case #1, you will likely want to maintain your allocation to ETH and periodically top up your investment by buying back the tokens you have lost as a result of paying for transactions. In case #2, you will also have to buy back the tokens you spend periodically as otherwise you will run out of tokens and not be able to perform the utilities you desire. These two may overlap somewhat but primary point is that no matter what, the users having their fees burned will periodically buy these tokens back. Therefore, while the fee burn does not directly create buying pressure it does do so indirectly with a high degree of certainty and can be thought of as a stock buyback. As Ethereum is running at a rate of $40mm fees/day this equates to roughly $30mm/day of structural indirect buy pressure and offsets most of structural sell pressure at current conditions. This is a very meaningful impact but will become significantly more impactful after the Merge, which we will get into more detail on later.
The most important part of this supply demand dynamic is that crypto is a unique asset class — structural supply scales linearly with price. This creates a fundamental mismatch where structural supply is denominated in tokens whereas structural demand is denominated in fiat. This means that as prices appreciate, this reflexively creates more structural supply and vice versa when prices decline, this reduces structural supply. Crypto assets are unique in this respect. Traditional equites do also pay out SBC, and a portion of this SBC is structurally sold. However, traditional equities denominate these SBC payments in fiat and not stock, meaning they decide they will pay out a certain amount of money, say $10mm annually in SBC and then divide this number by the stock price to arrive at the amount they will pay out. They do not decide that they will pay out 1,000 shares each year and just double the fiat-denominated amount of SBC if the share prices happens to double. Crypto assets DO pay out issuance in this matter. In my opinion, this structural dynamic is one of the most important fundamental links that has driven the historically cyclical price action of the entire crypto market.
Generally, cycles work as follows. Prices start to rise, which draws in hype, which causes large discretionary buying and is capable of pushing price up quickly. However, as the price increases, it creates additional structural supply, which eventually saturates discretionary demand and pushes prices back down. Prices then overshoot to the downside and simultaneously reduce structural demand leading to a bottoming process. Rinse and repeat. It is the structural supply/demand mismatch that creates this reflexive force, which in turn causes the cyclical mean reversion. In my view, this explains why crypto bull runs have historically not been sustainable and why Ethereum’s transition to PoS will be such an important event. Unlike Bitcoin, which will always have this structural supply issue capping price appreciation, once Ethereum shifts to a PoS architecture, it will break free of this dynamic permanently. Not only will this be massively positive for Ethereum, but it will be healthy for the entire Crypto market.
At a fundamental level, when Ethereum moves to PoS, miners will be obviated. The network will stop being validated by miners and instead this work will shift to stakers. Today, there is already a PoS Ethereum chain called the Beacon chain which runs in parallel to the primary PoW chain. What changes with the Merge is that the two chains merge together and all the important activity shifts to the PoS Beacon chain and therefore the PoW chain is no longer required. This transition will occur at one discrete moment in time and will not be gradual. Once the Merge has occurred, miners are no longer required, and all issuance is allocated to stakers. Stakers require only a fraction of the issuance that miners do. PoS require significantly less issuance than PoW to provide the same level of security so there is no security reduction in conjunction with the issuance reduction. It is a move from a less efficient system to a more efficient one. The first principles around why PoS is more efficient are quite interesting but somewhat detailed, so I have moved that discussion to the Appendix. If we merged today issuance would be reduced 90% (from ~15k tokens/day to ~1.5k tokens/day). In reality over the longer term the issuance reduction will be less acute as PoS issuance is correlated with staking participation, which will very likely rise post merge. I expect the actual reduction to be in the 60–70% range based off the following assumptions.
While the gross issuance reduction will be in the 60–70% range, the implications for daily sell pressure are a bit more complex. We assume that 85% of miner issuance is sold into the market, but what about staking issuance? Stakers do not having high fixed costs, generally they have no additional cost at all, so there is no need to sell a portion of issuance to cover expenses. Stakers also, by definition, own a stake of ETH. Therefore, they are likely to believe in the ETH investment thesis. In aggregate this will make them less likely to sell their future issuance. I am an active ETH staker and know many others, generally we stake because we want more ETH. In this context, while gross issuance is reduced 60–70% I would expect sell pressure to be reduced closer to 90% as the majority of staking rewards likely do not find their way back onto the open market. Furthermore, for the first few months after the merge, stakers won’t even be able to withdraw their issuance rewards so the initial reduction will be near 100%.
I have outlined why structural supply of ETH will decline 100%, initially, and likely ~90% longer term, the moment Ethereum transitions to PoS, but what about the structural demand side of the equation? Well, the Merge actually does not change the fee revenue much. This will come later with greater roll-up adoption and sharding. So, the structural demand will largely remain unchanged. I would actually expect it to increase around the Merge event in particular as activity will pick up before and through the Merge, increasing the daily fee revenue. However, to be conservative I have assumed the daily structural demand remains unchanged in my calculations.
Now let’s evaluate the potential impact of this structural change. ETH will shift from an environment of $35mm structural supply and $30mm structural demand to one of 0-$5m structural supply and the same $30mm of structural demand. This will produce a profound shift, the significance of which cannot be overstated. Many have equated this supply reduction to the equivalent of a “triple halving” in Bitcoin terms, but it is even more significant than that. Issuance will be reduced ~70% (which actually only equates to a double halving), the daily sell pressure is reduced ~90% (issuance and sell pressure are not the same) and this enables Ethereum to switch from a structural supply asset to a structural demand asset. This will be one of the first times in history that there is a large crypto asset with continuous structural demand and has never happened at this scale. From a price action perspective, it will switch from an environment that needs ~$5mm of new money entering the asset on a daily basis just to maintain current prices to an environment that will require ~$30mm of existing holders to sell their tokens every day just to maintain a level price without going up. Even ignoring the discretionary impact of the merge, which we will discuss shortly, this structural shift alone is enough to drive dramatic price appreciation.
What about discretionary supply and demand? This is where things start to get even more interesting. One of the effects of the Merge is to reallocate validator rewards from miners to stakers. Right now, miners receive 90% of issuance while stakers receive the remaining 10%. After the merge, stakers will get 100% of issuance and transaction fees. If you add these up and run the numbers, if the merge were to occur today, the ETH staking reward would be ~20%.
There are two factors which cause this rate to be so high. The first is the fact that ETH generates a very large fee pool. The second is the very low staking participation rate.
Currently, only ~7% of ETH is staked. This is due to several reasons. First, the current 5% staking reward is relatively low. The second and less obvious reason is that ETH has very strong token distribution. There are no large VC’s holding significant portion of the supply unlike other chains. Generally, these large holders have a very high staking participation rate, their lack of existence on the ETH cap table pushes down the staking participation rate meaningfully. Finally, as there are a lot of other things to do with your ETH (ETH is the base pair in almost all large LP’s for example) this also drives down staking participation rate. Anything that reduces staking participation rate is good for fundamentals as it creates an opportunity for those that do stake to receive an outsized share of total rewards. It also means that issuance is reduced which is another advantage.
With that said, I would not expect staking participation to remain this low post-Merge once the staking APR resets and stakers can more easily withdraw their stakes. In practice, when the reward resets to a 20% rate this will cause a lot capital to flow into ETH staking to capture that high rate. Some of this capital will come from dormant ETH stakes that had not been incentivized enough by the 5% rate but would change their mind at a 20% rate. However, an additional portion will come from fresh capital that purchases ETH because the staking reward is so high. I assume that the staking reward will settle somewhere around 10% in the medium term which implies another ~8.8mm tokens will need to be staked. If we assume 75% of that comes from dormant ETH and 25% comes from fresh capital this leads to approximately 2.2mm ETH tokens that need to be purchased post merge. This equates to ~$9B at current prices and is an enormous amount of discretionary demand to be absorbed.
The rest of the discretionary supply/demand story is more subjective. On the demand side, there will be those that seek to buy ETH on the Merge narrative (green energy, best in class dev team that finally pulled off one the largest upgrades in the history, drastic improvement in fundamentals). On the sell side will be everyone who bought ETH before the merge in expectation of the Merge and would now be looking to “sell the news.”
Things can, and likely will, change between now and when the Merge actually occurs, but today I think the pool of discretionary crypto traders is actually underweight ETH relative to other L1’s. The narrative throughout 2021 has been that of the “ETH killers” and many have dramatically outperformed ETH. Being overweight Sol/AVAX, underweight ETH has been the dominant trade of 2021. Ethereum is one of the most hated assets in crypto right now due to the high fee narrative, and this creates a situation where many traders are going to be offsides as the Merge approaches and the narrative flips. In this context, I think there will be a meaningful amount of capital that flows into ETH once the Merge comes into focus and people better appreciate the significance of it. Crypto traders love to trade narratives, and this is likely going to be one of the strongest narratives we have ever seen and importantly, will also be backed up by generational fundamentals.
The reason these traders haven’t already begun allocating to ETH in anticipation of the Merge is that generally crypto traders have a very short time horizon and think in terms of hours/days/weeks rather than months/years. This is not a knock on them, the crypto space moves extremely quickly and, this short-term thinking is required to capitalize on many opportunities. However, it does mean that most likely haven’t started positioning for the Merge yet. Timing is uncertain, but I expect the merge to occur in the May/June timeframe. While its always possible for things to change, I have spent a lot of time doing research to inform this view, so I am quite confident in it.
On top of this there is another 2nd order effect that I have not seen discussed elsewhere. One of the use cases for cryptocurrency is as a decentralized store of value, a “Digital Gold”. To date, Ethereum and Bitcoin have primarily competed for this use case and so far, Bitcoin has won, as evidenced by its significantly larger market cap despite significantly reduced utility. However, one of the major limitations of greater adoption for both assets has been their extreme volatility. Part of the reason gold is used a store of value is because it is generally very stable, especially in negative macro-economic environments. One of the reasons BTC and ETH have struggled so much in these environments is because they are fundamentally structural supply assets, so in these periods of stress when there are already plenty of sellers there is an additional net seller every day. Once ETH becomes a structural demand asset, I would expect it to exhibit meaningfully greater stability, especially in times of stress, than Bitcoin, which will forever remain a structural supply asset. This should help ETH make headway against BTC in the SoV competition and will likely lead to a consistent increase in discretionary demand for ETH post merge. To be clear, around the actual Merge event I expect massive volatility, but after things settle out in the months after the event ETH should find a new equilibrium (likely much higher) and become the most stable asset in crypto.
To summarize its helpful to break down the supply and demand buckets into discrete components.
A. Structural Supply — Miner selling to cover costs and turn a profit (Currently $40m daily seller)
B. Structural Demand — Users buying back ETH spent on transactions (Currently $30m daily buyer)
C. Recurring Discretionary Demand — Investors/Users that indiscriminately purchase ETH on a recurring basis (think Sassal). This is the group that keeps ETH in equilibrium despite ETH currently being a structural supply asset (currently $10m daily buyer)
D. Non-Recurring Discretionary Supply/Demand — The combination of new capital that is likely to buy ETH to stake it and the discretionary investors/traders that are likely to buy ETH for the other reasons discussed above (~$9B of staking related demand plus an additional $1–10B of other discretionary demand)
Putting it all together, currently, ETH prices have reached an equilibrium where there are enough discretionary buyers (Group C) to absorb the daily miner sell pressure (Group A). Once the Merge occurs you will be left with an environment where the structural buyers (Group B) are still buying, the existing recurring demand (Group C) still needs to be absorbed, and the structural supply (Group A) that had been filling all these buyers vanishes at one discrete moment in time. On top of this, you will likely have over ~$10B, and potentially much more, of discretionary demand (Group D) that needs to purchase ETH into and through the Merge. In aggregate, there will be unprecedented structural and discretionary demand for ETH just as the primary structural seller of ETH is removed. There will be many buyers of ETH and no one willing to sell to them. We have seen large moves and supply shocks in crypto before, but I believe the Merge will create the largest and most violent one we have ever seen at scale.
In aggregate the ETH investment opportunity over the next 6 months is unique and in all likelihood we will never see another set-up like it. For this foundation to be laid two distinct conditions needed to be met. First, a PoW asset transitioning to PoS. The significance of the event is not that ETH will end up PoS. It is significant because the established equilibrium under PoW conditions will be flipped 180 degrees at one discrete moment. It is the transition that is significant. Given that most crypto projects now launch as PoS from the start, these transitions will likely be extremely rare going forward. Second, there needed to be an L1 with significant fee revenue to allow for a strong structural demand asset to be born. As shown earlier, ETH generates over 10x more fee revenue than any other L1 so this is also unlikely to repeat. Finally, for the impact to truly be powerful you need BOTH of these uncorrelated conditions to be met at the same time.
4. Part IV — FAQ’s/Appendix
Everyone already knows about the merge; doesn’t that mean it’s already priced in?
I would agree, nearly all educated crypto participants know the Merge is expected in 2022. However, only a small subset of those people, maybe 20%, truly understand its significance and an even smaller subset of those people are actively increasing their ETH allocation at this time as the timing is still uncertain. Furthermore, even if there was a much larger portion of people actively positioning for the Merge, I still don’t think very much of the move would be priced in. To understand why, its important to first look at the three types of catalysts that exist with financial assets.
First, there are fundamental catalysts. For example, Company A comes out with an earnings release that shows better than expected results. This will not directly impact supply and demand; however, it has the potential to do so indirectly. This indirect impact will be determined by the events ability to change people’s perception of company A and therefore get them to act by buying more or selling less of company A and therefore impact supply and demand. If however, everyone already expected company A to beat earnings and is not surprised then there will likely be no change in supply/demand and therefore this event will have been “priced in”. These fundamental catalysts are easiest to “price in”.
The second type of catalyst is a one-time flow catalyst. An example of this would be Crypto Asset B has a lock up approaching where a certain portion of holders will be able to sell their tokens for the first time. Traders can then make assumptions and determine that if $X unlocks on that day and Y% of holders will sell than there is likely to be X*Y = $Z sold around the unlock. These traders can then go and sell $Z and buy it back after the event happens. This will effectively “price in” the event ahead of time as the actual flow when the event occurs will be neutral since you will have the unlocked investors selling $Z and the traders buying $Z. In practice generally the traders sell a bit less than $Z and these types of catalysts are normally partially priced in. Lastly, there are structural flow catalysts. Like one time flow catalysts these directly impact supply/demand dynamics however they do so in a structural fashion. Bitcoin halving events are a good example of structural flow catalysts.
Bitcoin halving events are known for many years before they actually occur, yet they always seem to have a meaningful impact on price action. This is because structural flow catalysts are nearly impossible to price in. In the case of Bitcoin’s next halving event for example, structural supply will be reduced by ~$15mm/day at current levels. In order to price this in, market participants would need to buy ~$15mm of Bitcoin every single day between now and the halving event and then after it occurred sell back the ~15mm of Bitcoin every day after the event. Even this would only price it in for so long, as eventually the traders would have sold everything they bought, and that future effect would then no longer be priced in. However, no market participants actually do this, and therefore structural flow catalysts do not start to be priced in until very close to the events and even then, are never fully priced in. Ethereum’s transition to PoS will be the largest structural flow catalysts in the history of crypto.
What about Bitcoin’s halving events? Don’t they also reduce structural supply?
Yes, as discussed above they do reduce structural supply and they are bullish. However, the way that Bitcoin halving events work they will never completely erase Bitcoin’s structural supply issues. Generally, the events lead to step function gains in Bitcoin’s price action which is what gave rise to the popular stock-to-flow model for Bitcoin. However, once price resets, the structural flow becomes the same as before as denominated in fiat. For this reason, Bitcoin will never really be able to lift the cap on its price the way Ethereum will. Furthermore, as Bitcoin does not have structural demand due to very low fee revenue it will likely never be a structural demand asset. Lastly, Bitcoin’s halving events are driven purely by a reduction in issuance without a shift to a more efficient consensus mechanism, therefore while they reduce issuance, they also reduce security which is a detriment to fundamentals and raises several unanswered long-term questions. Bitcoin is head and shoulders above every other crypto asset when it comes to decentralization and this has significant value but at the end of the day crypto assets are driven by supply and demand and this will likely always remain an issue for Bitcoin.
If structural demand is so significant why did 1559 not have an even bigger impact on ETH prices?
While EIP-1559 did result in significant price appreciation for ETH, I do not think the structural demand change as fully reflected as one might have expected. Before 1559 users were still buying back the ETH they spent on transactions. This is not where the change occurred. Instead, the change occurred in terms of where the fees were going. Before 1559 all transaction fees went to miners who you may have assumed were selling those fees back into the market and after 1559 a portion of fees are now burned and do not find their way back into the market. You would have expected then that 1559 would result in a significant reduction of daily sell pressure. However, while miners do sell a portion of issuance as we have discussed above, these additional fees were all falling through to their bottom line as their selling from issuance was already offsetting all of their expenses. In this context, they were likely only selling a smaller portion of the additional fee rewards that they received.
To summarize, while miners now receive a lower aggregate number of daily tokens, they are also likely selling a greater portion of these tokens which likely offset a large portion of the structural impact you would have theorized 1559 would have had on the price of ETH. For this reason, I think 1559’s greater impact was laying the foundation for the impact the merge will have rather than its independent direct impact.
There are already many other PoS assets, why are you not more bullish on them too?
There are many other successful PoS assets, and many have done extremely well. I hold several of them and think many other assets besides Ethereum will also succeed. With that said, most other PoS assets lack the fee revenue to become structural demand assets and importantly are already PoS which makes them less attractive over the medium-term vs an asset that is transitioning to PoS. In this context, ETH’s set-up over the next six months is unparalleled and, in my opinion, it is not particularly close. I believe ETH offers a significantly better risk adjusted return over the next 6 months than all other L1’s.
Why is PoS so much more efficient than PoW?
To understand why PoS is more efficient than PoW first we need to understandhow either mechanism provides security. The purpose of the consensus mechanism is to validate transactions and provide protection against a 51% attack. The efficiency of a consensus mechanism can be measured by the issuance required to generate a unit amount of security. In other words, how many dollars the network has to pay out to receive $1 of protection from a 51% attack. For PoW, the cost of a 51% attack is primarily the hardware required to obtain 51% of the hashrate. So it comes down to how much money miners require to invest $1 in mining hardware. Given that mining hardware only lasts a couple years and miners generally demand a healthy profit margin, generally it works out to 100% return on investment in the first year. This means that to buy $1 of mining hardware miners require $1 of issuance. They can then use this hardware for 2 years and turn a profit. In this context, the network needs to issue $1 of supply each year to generate $1 of security. In reality the efficiency is actually worse than this as this doesn't account for utility costs which also push efficiency down.
In the case of PoS stakers are not required to purchase hardware, so the question becomes what return do stakers demand to lock up their stake in the PoS consensus mechanism. Once locked these stakes act as protection against a 51% attack as an a attacker would need to purchase enough stake to represent 51% of the total. In general, stakers require ~10 (maybe lower over time but we can assume 10% to be conservative) return to lock their assets in PoS. This means that to gain $1 of security a PoS needs to issue $0.10 of issuance. This 10x more efficient than the PoW mechanism and actually contains several conservative assumptions so in reality it is actually greater than 10x more efficient. To conclude, this means that a PoS network can issue 1/10th the issuance of a PoW network and be just as secure. In the case of ETH they will actually issue about 1/3rd the issuance and the network will be 3x as secure as it was during PoW.
 The only other large assets that arguably have structural demand is BNB. I believe its structural demand is the primary reason it has been able to maintain it position as the 3rd largest asset despite a significant negative narrative and lack of growth. It trades at 2x the Market Cap/Revenue multiple of ETH despite whatare in my opinion significantly worse secular fundamentals. To me this very fact is a large proof point in favor of the impact structural demand can have on price action