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What explains the rise of AMMs?

Imagine a college friend reached out to you and said, “Hey, I have a business idea. I’m going to run a market making bot. I’ll always quote a price no matter who’s asking, and for my pricing algorithm I’ll use x * y = k. That’s pretty much it. Want to invest?”

You’d run away.

Well, turns out your friend just described Uniswap. Uniswap is the world’s simplest on-chain market making operation. Seemingly from nowhere, it has exploded in volume in the last year, crowning itself the world’s largest “DEX” by volume.

If you haven’t paid close attention to what’s happening in DeFi in the last year, you’re probably wondering: what is going on here?

Uniswap v2 volume. Credit:

(If you’re already familiar with Uniswap and AMMs, skip ahead to the section titled “The Cambrian AMM Explosion.”)

For the uninitiated: Uniswap is an automated market maker (AMM). You can think of an AMM as a primitive robotic market maker that is always willing to quote prices between two assets according to a simple pricing algorithm. For Uniswap, it prices the two assets so that the number of units it holds of each asset, multiplied together, is always equal to a fixed constant.

That’s a bit of a mouthful: if Uniswap owns some units of token x and some units of token y, it prices any trade so that the final quantities of x and y it owns, multiplied together, are equal to a fixed constant, k. This is formalized as the constant product equation: x * y = k.

This might strike you as a weird and arbitrary way to price two assets. Why would maintaining some fixed multiple between your units of inventory ensure that you quote the right price?

Uniswap by example

Let’s say we fund a Uniswap pool with 50 apples (a) and 50 bananas (b), so anyone is free to pay apples for bananas or bananas for apples. Let’s assume the exchange rate between apples and bananas is exactly 1:1 on their primary market. Because the Uniswap pool holds 50 of each ...

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