Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was in Washington yesterday trying to keep the dream of the global digital currency called Libra alive.
It’s a tempting vision to send money to anyone in the world with a tap on a smartphone. But when Facebook laid out a vision for Libra, saying that an independent association would control it, that it wouldn’t get data from its users and that Facebook would just be one of dozens of partners, not everyone believed it.
A handful of key partners in the financial industry have decided not to participate, at least at this stage. Regulators are watching closely. I spoke with Lisa Ellis, an analyst at MoffettNathanson, who said that at a minimum Libra will have to win back partners like Visa, PayPal or Stripe if it’s going to survive. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Lisa Ellis: I wouldn’t say because they pulled out, Libra is now completely dead on arrival. But I would say, eventually, they need to be on board if this thing is going to have a fighting chance of success. The reason for that is because setting up payment systems is extremely difficult, both from a technical perspective, from a risk management perspective, and from a regulatory perspective. There are very, very few companies on the planet that know how to enter a country and effectively set up a payment system. Those are just normal payment systems — doing that with a cryptocurrency just increases the complexity even higher.
Molly Wood: You have the Facebook question: how much of the very real challenges that Libra has faced are about concerns about the proposals and the structure and logistics, and how much are Facebook?
Ellis: From my perspective, the Libra project has come under such regulatory scrutiny has everything to do with the fact that it’s Facebook. Meaning, there’s hundreds of other cryptocurrency projects going on all over the world, many of which are as grandiose in their goals and designs. And none of them are getting thrown in front of Congress. The level of regulatory scrutiny is very premature for the maturity of the project, but I suppose understandable, at least from a political perspective, given all of the scrutiny on Facebook.
Wood: In his congressional testimony, Mark Zuckerberg raised the possibility that if America doesn’t innovate on digital currency that China will. How real a threat is that?
Ellis: The specific risk he’s highlighting is that many of the unbanked and underbanked — that would be the initial users, potentially, of something like Libra — are in regions of the world where if there’s not a U.S. dollar-backed staple coin available for their use, and if there’s a different digital currency — and maybe it comes out of China — they might just go use that one instead. Does it have to be Libra, specifically? No, but by its design, and as evidenced by the fact that Facebook was able to get the 25-30 companies to even raise their hands to say that they’re interested in the initiative, is indicative of the fact that the design of Libra, at least on paper, is as good as anything out there for use for consumer payments.
Wood: It sounds like you’re saying we do need a Libra-like cryptocurrency that is a global payments system?
Ellis: I personally see real utility in cryptocurrencies as an alternative to fiat currency, where fiat currencies are unstable or suffer from very high inflation. Meaning, it’s like the use case of the digital gold, so to speak. There are something like 80 countries that already use either the dollar or the euro as a substitute or link their currency to the dollar, the euro — it would be those types of countries. I absolutely see utility in this use case for a digital form of currency.
Wood: There are a number of criticisms, a number of concerns, or a number of things that people would like to clarify about this, not all related to Facebook. Can you help us break down what have been some of the sticking points for either regulators or partner companies, or both?
Ellis: Understandably, probably the first and foremost concern amongst regulators is related to any money laundering, terrorist activity, ensuring that any cryptocurrency system doesn’t end up being a conduit for illegal activity or an enabler of illegal activity. The second issue that’s been raised is, or questions, is just related to monetary policy. Any time you’re talking about a cryptocurrency, which is dollar linked or linked to any of the big global reserve currencies — dollar, euro or yen — then that raises questions around what is the interplay or the relationship between that cryptocurrency and the underlying fiat currency it’s tied to and how will they interact with the setting of monetary policy?
Wood: This was always going to be really difficult, right? I mean, this was always a big idea?
Ellis: Yes, certainly, this is in the category of very futuristic, very experimental tech. I think of it as a futuristic technology experiment that you would certainly hope that our big U.S. tech companies do when [they] have these long-term visions and set massive aspirations and are able to convene the ecosystem to work together against these fantastic visions for how the future might be different. But like any futuristic experiment, the likelihood of any of those is always very, very low. In this case, when you’re dealing with one that mixes both technology and finance together, that makes it that much more difficult.
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At least one analyst firm wrote recently that Libra is, in fact, the best hope for the U.S. to compete in developing a digital currency for emerging markets. But like we said, Libra isn’t the only option out there, although one new idea isn’t any less controversial.
This week, President Donald Trump’s former Federal Reserve nominee Stephen Moore announced a dollar-backed cryptocurrency called Frax that’s actually intended to compete with central banks, which I think we can all agree is a bit of a turnabout. Frax currently doesn’t have any outside investors, but it does have a co-founder from the tech industry. And Moore told Fortune Magazine that he wants the currency to reduce the need for centralized monetary policy, which ironically is closer to the original vision for Bitcoin.
Moore, it should be noted, withdrew his candidacy for the Federal Reserve. Critics complained about his history of inappropriate jokes, and economists questioned his commitment to the gold standard. Maybe Frax will have the last laugh.
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